Why You Should Cold Call a President

What do a sitting head of state, NASA Astronaut, and Olympic medalist have in common?

The answer: they all spoke at a TEDx conference I organized a few years ago.  Despite having no prior experience with high-profile speakers (or TEDx events), no way of financially compensating presenters, and being only 16 years old at the time, I booked some of the highest-caliber speakers that D.C. area TEDx events had ever seen.  Here's how I snagged some spectacular speakers, and how you can, too:

(from left) Kristina Podnar, Digital Policy Activist; Hon. Lionel Aingimea, President of the Republic of Nauru; Marshall Brain, Founder of HowStuffWorks and Author

1. Establish Credibility

Place yourself in the shoes of an influential world leader, and imagine that you're invited to a party by the party organizer, whom you don't know.  The obvious answer is no: while the party attendees would receive tremendous benefit, there is little to no benefit for you to come to the party.

Now, imagine you're invited to the same party, but you are informed that other world leaders will be attending, and the party is sponsored by a well-known international conference group.  In the second scenario, you're much more likely to attend: the partygoers would receive the same benefit, but now there is a greater incentive for you to attend.

For any event where higher caliber speakers are on the invite list, ensure that you have credibility behind you and that the benefits of speaking are great enough to cause them to consider your offer.  The TEDx brand is well-known worldwide for quality conferences (and for good reason, the application process and regulations for TEDx events are stringent), which established instant credibility for my event.

2. Research, Research, Research

Don't just blindly invite big-name speakers to speak at your event, even if you're confident they'll attend ― take the time to thoroughly research them and determine if they'll be a good fit.

I researched some of the speakers for TEDxYouth@BriarWoodsHS for years to ensure their areas of expertise and speaking style aligned with the event, and while most organizers may only need months to vet their speakers, going the extra mile with speaker selection will pay dividends.  If there's any place to put in the most effort, it's here: if you invite speakers that don't mesh well with your event, you have to work (and live) with that mistake.

Plus, having a strong knowledge base about your speakers will help you interact with them better and give you more insight into how to work them into the event program.  Have a speaker that tends to give emotional, heartfelt talks?  Slide them in at the end of the event to tug at the audience's heartstrings before they leave.  Have a presenter that prefers strong speeches with a call to action?  Put them at the beginning to draw listeners in.

3. Send the Invites

Now that you're certain your preferred speakers are a great fit for your event, you need to do more research to determine how to convince them to accept your invitation.  You should have plenty of information from your previous research to draw on when crafting invitations, but now is the time to focus more on what their personal goals are and craft connections between them and your event.

One key thing to note: for some speakers (especially those who deliver talks professionally on a routine basis), it's better to reach out to them through an intermediary (think secretary, manager, or mutual friend), but others prefer being contacted directly through a cold call or email.  There's no formula to this, as it varies from person to person, so use your best judgement.  

If you do decide to reach out to your speaker through an intermediary, try to establish a relationship with the intermediary first it might drastically increase your chances of them forwarding your request to the speaker.  Even if the speaker declines your offer, you'll at least have a new contact you can call back in the future.

(from left) Andrew Morgan, NASA Astronaut; Wayde Byard, local celebrity; Dennis Blake, Olympic Medalist

A great demonstration of the above three step method in action was when I cold emailed President Hon. Lionel Aingimea of the Republic of Nauru to speak at my TEDx event:

1. Establish Credibility

After obtaining a TEDx event license from TED and booking some of the speakers shown in the two panels above, I felt confident enough that my invitation had enough backing to be considered.

2. Research, Research, Research

Out of all the event's speakers, I spent the most time researching President Aingimea and the country of Nauru.  I learned about Nauruan history, politics, and culture, how President Aingimea was combatting the advances of energy companies to exploit Nauru's valuable phosphate resources, and why Nauru's cutting-edge "capture and contain" response to the COVID-19 pandemic reversed a centuries-long trend of disastrous epidemics.

Nauru is a beautiful country ― both geograpically and culturally ― and I highly recommend a visit.  If you're looking for a remote getaway with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, look no further than Nauru.  If you're interested in visiting, you can learn more about the logistics here.

After extensive research on how President Aingimea was working wonders for Nauru, aligning with the even theme perfectly, I was sure he would fit the event.

3. Send the Invites

After spending weeks writing the perfect email, I held my breath, clicked send, and continued organizing the rest of the event.  Despite all the time I spent on his invitation, I didn't expect a response ― so I was thrilled when I received an email from his secretary informing me that President Aingimea had accepted my invitation.

While the phrase "you win some, you lose some" rings true when contacting speakers, it's important never to settle for less than the best dream big, and don't be afraid to cold call a president.


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Photo Credit:  Nauru President Lionel Aingimea addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, at the United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)