The Reagan Test: How to Write Emails That Are Easy to Reply To

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I travel a lot.

For my last few jobs, I had to travel all over the United States and Canada. I frequently passed through a number of different airline hubs and know the inside of Boston Logan airport better than the back of my hand.

If you’ve traveled a lot, you know that two things are true:

  1. It will always be a bit of a chaotic nightmare as long as you’re flying commercial.
  2. Airport layout and design matters. A lot.

I don’t like to think of myself as an anxious person and I hawk my email inbox pretty closely. The only time that my anxiety spikes and that my email inbox leaves the proverbial Inbox Zero state is when I have to fly through chaotic, nightmarish airports like DCA — Washington Reagan National Airport — in Washington DC.

The Reagan Test

When thinking about sending emails to Very Busy People, practice a thought experiment in empathy.

Imagine you are flying across the country for a business trip. Your first flight was behind schedule and now your one-hour layover is going to be twenty minutes. Even worse, you’re not at a comfortable airport like DTW or SFO, you’re at a chaotic, crowded, poorly designed, over-capacity airport like DCA or LGA.

You have to run between gates at this airport and may even need to switch terminals. There are people running in every direction and, for whatever nightmarish design reason, a newspaper stand and a bagel shop in the middle of the terminal.

Then, you get to your gate, 37X, only to find that it is actually four gates, 37A, 37B, 37C, and 37D. You frantically search the TV screen to see which of these four gates your plane is departing from and realize you also have to board a bus to take you to the plane.

Meanwhile, through all of this, an email rolls into your inbox.

The email is completely cold. You don’t know the person sending it. The subject piques your interest and you want to respond, but not missing your flight takes priority.

At this point in the thought experiment, I ask people, what would that email have to look like to get a response from you?

This is my Reagan Test for Email Copy. (Has nothing to do with the President and more to do with the terrible American Airlines hub on the Potomac River.)

A Case Study Application

Even if the person you’re emailing isn’t frantically rushing between gates and experiencing the nightmare that is modern air travel imagine that they are. There are few things more frustrating than receiving a cold email that looks potentially interesting but does not have a clear ask, a clear call to action, and a clear reason for emailing that specific person.

This is one of the reasons I put together my own email scripts.

Here’s an email a client had me recently tear down:

This email is actually considerably better than the original script he had pulled off the Internet (unfortunately he did not start with my own scripts). There’s a point of rapport, it’s clear why he’s emailing this specific person,

But let’s apply the Reagan test:

Is it clear what he wants if you were reading this on your phone while rushing between gates at a crowded, busy airport?

I don’t think so.

Does he want me to download the guide?

Does he want me to send it friends?

Does he want a reply?

What, exactly, does he want?

Here’s another email the same client put together:

Does this email pass the Reagan test?

Yes, although there are ways it can bebetter.

There’s a clear call to action to schedule a call and this call to action is time-limited. Good!

How can it be better?

Why does he want to get “virtual coffee”? It almost sounds like to pitch the guy on working with him — so why not just come out and say that?

How long will the “virtual coffee” take?

And I told the client this — since I’ve worked in sales and business development, I bristle when somebody asks to “get coffee” or “pick [my] brain.” Why not just make it very clear what you want to discuss?

This tool is one of the most important that you can apply when writing sales or outreach emails. Empathize with your readers and understand that they are very busy. You are owed nothing by them — so make it easy for them to reply if they decide to take a leap of faith on you.

And, when traveling, try not to connect at Reagan.

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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