How I Booked My TEDx talk

Angela Duckworth on Grit

Watch my TEDx talk "Slavery Still Exists. Here's How to End It"

If you're a fan of TED talks, then you've certainly heard Angela Duckworth's talk on Grit. In it, she talks about how the one quality that most directly correlates with success is Grit. That quality that could be described as courage, determination, intestinal fortitude or stick-to-it-iveness. Or as it's known in my house, "Go back and try the problem yourself, before asking me for the answer."

After listening to her talk, it inspired me to not only give my own TEDx talk, but also do whatever it took to get it booked. And if there was one word that describes how I booked my TEDx talk, it would be GRIT. But let me break down the process for you:

Discover your Idea Worth Spreading.

I work for International Justice Mission, the largest anti-slavery organziation in the world. And you don't get to be best in class without doing something that works. And so, my idea worth spreading is not really my idea, at all. It's the model of transformation that IJM has been using throughout the world to put an end to slavery.

Find the TEDx events in your area.

From the website, you can find out where all the TEDx events are being held around the nation. So, I basically chose every TEDx event in NJ or VA. That produced about 20-25 events. But upon closer inspection, many of them don't apply to me. TEDxWomen or TEDxYouth events were removed and that left me with about 15 events that were good potential possibilities.

Contact the event organizers.

If you click on the name of the event, you are taken to their specific website for their event. Many of these events have speakers booked many, many months in advance, so don't choose an event that is just a few weeks away. On the bottom of the page, you can see the name of the event organizer. But, actually finding their contact information proved more difficult than it seemed it should be. There was no discernible email or contact information from the website. So I had to consider other options. Since you had the organizer's name and photo, I launched into doing some internet research. I considered contacting them through Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Facebook seemed too personal, Twitter seemed too public. LinkedIn seemed to be the best avenue or contact. So, I found the event organizers for the 15 events on LinkedIn and messaged all of them that I could find. Out of the 15 messages that I sent, 3 were returned. Of the 3 messages returned, 1 of them told me that it was a private TEDx event and I was not eligible as a speaker. The other 2 asked me to...

Fill out a speaker application.

I went to the link to fill out the speaker request form on their website (it wasn't easily accessible from the main website, for whatever reason). I'm not sure why they make it so difficult to make contact. Perhaps it's an oversight... or perhaps it's their brilliant scheme: if you're not smart enough to find a way to conatct me, then you're not smart enough to be a TEDx speaker. I would recommend taking your time filling out the application and making sure that your answers to the questions are concise and compelling. Concise because you want to intruige them to pursue a further conversation. Compelling because you want to appeal to their audience. Out of the 2 applications I filled out, I got 1 response.

Pitch your talk on the phone.

I had a phone call interview with the event organizer to go throught the topic of my talk. Once you have them on the phone, you are essentially picthing yourself as much as your idea. They are going to make sure that you are you a good communicator and have a likeable personality. So, I did my best impression of a likeable person and... booked it.

Basically, it went from 1000s of TEDx events, to 25 regional events, to 15 possibilities, to 3 responses, to 2 applications, to 1 phone call.

So, you can see how it took a modicum of grit to get it done. So, thank you, Angela Duckworth.

Where I'm Speaking... TEDx Cape May, Part II

Watch my TEDx talk "Slavery Still Exists. Here's How to End It"

> This is part of a 2 part series on my experience speaking at TEDx Cape May. You really should go and read Part I first.

TEDx Rehearsal.jpg


Memorizing my speech was one of the hardest aspects of preparing for the TEDx talk. I'm used to speaking in many different venues, but usually I'm able to access my notes or the event is casual enough for me to pause or search for the answer. Not so with a TEDx. But I felt confident about my prep work and was ready to hit the stage. However, I made absolute sure that the exact wording of my first line was precise.

The tone of a talk is often set by the first few lines of a speech. And sometimes, speakers will start out their talks with, "Um.. yeah... so... I am... My name is..." That is the worst.

Speakers, please memorize your very first line!

"Before I begin, can I borrow $20 from someone...?"

That was it. That was my line. I then proceeded to look around the audience to see if anyone had a $20 bill that I could use. So after a few moments of tension and pause, I got a $20 bill from the person in the front row to whom I had planted my $20 bill earlier that morning. [Note: never leave things to chance. You don't want to be up there 3minutes into your bucket list TEDx talk and be like, "Do you have a $5? Can you break a $50?"]

Many TED/TEDx speakers try and use a hook as their first line to keep the audience engaged and even a little off-balance. I hadn't seen anyone start out with directly engaging the audience so I figured I would give it a shot. And it turns out that it wove directly into the subject of my talk. And you know what, the kid didn't miss my lighting cue... =D

The day before, at the rehearsal, I found out that there was a professional video crew on site (with 3 cameras!) and that they could cut out any pauses or mistakes. So that set my mind at ease in case I make any mistakes. But as it was, the talk went over very smoothly and there was only one moment where I needed to pause in order to remember my spot in the script. Fix it in post!

I memorized the exact wording of the last line of my talk, because you don't want to misspeak. You don't want to jerk the wheel when you are landing the plane. I don't konw if that's a thing that pilots say, but I imagine that's a good practice. When I was done, I got to say the iconic, "Thank you" and could hear the TEDx applause that accompanies every one of the 100,000 talks on youtube. Is TEDx applause different than every other kind of applause, you ask? Yes, yes it is.

After every speaker was done with their talks, we headed back over to Congress Hall for a reception with the speakers and the audience. And after that, it was time to get back into my car and drive 3+ hours back home. Just in time to see my kids off to bed and call it a weekend.

Where I'm Speaking... TEDx Cape May

Watch my TEDx talk "Slavery Still Exists. Here's How to End It"

There are a few things that would probably make a preacher/speaker bucket list. And doing a TEDx talk would probably be a very common one.

On stage at TEDx Cape May for my rehearsal

I was honored to be a TEDx speaker at TEDx Cape May this month. How I landed the talk will be another post for another day. But for now, I'd like to chronicle my experience during that weekend.

The TEDx Talk was in Cape May, NJ, which is one of the nicest places to be in the great state. It just so happens that it listerally the furthest point in NJ from my house. So it took a full 3 hours of driving on Saturday. On the bright side, I was able to practice my talk without interruption and without being able to cheat by looking at my notes.

When I arrived, I pulled up to Congress Hall and immediately got a sense that I was staying somewhere historic. It turns out it is the 1st seaside hotel in America! And it was called the summer White House because it was frequented by US Presidents.

 Congress Hall in Cape May, NJ

Congress Hall in Cape May, NJ

I had spoken with a friend who gave a TEDx talk a month prior to mine and he told me that he did a full run-through the day before. So I was prepared to do my full talk. As I pulled up to the Lower Cape Regional High School, I noticed that the sound crew and the lighting crew seemed awfully young. It turns out that they utilize volunteers from the highschool. I thought that was cool... just don't mess up my lighting, kid. It turned out that no one was rehearsing their talk, they were just making sure that their slides were working and that they knew where to stand. I had to make a special request because I start out my talk by getting a $20 bill from the audience. So they had to make sure the camera was tracking me and that the lighting fill would keep me lit. I was a bit bummed that I didn't get to do a full run-through. That means that the next time I delivered my talk in front of someone, it would be the real deal.

After the rehearsal, we all headed over to a local woman's house who had catered a special dinner for the speakers. She had seen that a TEDx was coming to her town and wanted to do something special. It was great to meet the other speakers and hear what everyone was talking about. It was a bit intimidating to see such accomplished people in their field. But it was too late for them to disinvite me, so too bad, suckers.

I rehearsed once in my room and read over the notes and basically fell asleep watching netflix to take my mind off of the talk. Of course, I woke up at 5:00am for no good reason other than I was probably very nervous... and I had to pee.

The next morning I went down for breakfast and had breakfast with the one speaker I was most excited about meeting. Daryl Davis is one of the most accomplished R&B piano players out there. He played with Chuck Berry for over 30 years, but has made his more recent fame through befriending members of the KKK at clan rallys... Daryl Davis is black; that's an important part of the story. I had heard about his story after the Charlottesville riots in August and was thrilled that we were going to be on the same stage. [Aside: There is a great conversation between 2 friends of mine on the New Activist podcast about the Charlottesville riots. Full disclosure, I work for IJM, the sponsor of the podcast. But still, you should listen].

When we arrived at the highschool (Daryl caravaned behind me so he wouldn't get lost... uh, you're welcome). We walked into the auditorium to see the star of the show, Wyclef Jean, up on stage doing a sound check on his guitar. He was the biggest marquee name of the speaker lineup and the other speaker that I was most excited to meet.

Wyclef Jean doing his sound check

After getting settled in the green room (read: boys dressing room for the HS musical), we made our way into the audience to hear the various talks. I'll go through each speaker in another post, because I found a lot of their talks really interesting. When it was the speaker before me, I went backstage and got ready in the green room.

Getting ready for me meant getting my microphone and getting my blood flowing. Usually what I try to do before I go and speak is jump up and down a bit and flail my arms in circles. I'm trying to get my adrenaline up so I don't come out flat.

And then, it was showtime.

[Part II]

9/11 Eulogy


13 years ago, I lost a friend on the 93rd floor of the North Tower.

I delivered his eulogy about a month later. I was 26 years old and was tasked with honoring my friend's life, making sense of the senseless and comforting the mourning. It remains to this day, the hardest message i've had to deliver.

Every year, as this day comes around, I try to remind myself of the lessons that I've learned since then. I repost my thoughts every year to as an exercise of reminding myself (and hopefully some of you, too) of what it was like. I guess I am trying to take that #neverforget hashtag seriously.

My hope is that through reading this, you are reminded of God's goodness and sovereignty.

“I stand before you with the hollowing and daunting task of honoring our friend and brother, Andy, with mere words, simple anecdotes, and a limited perspective. So, forgive me in advance for any injustice I may do to his life or to his impact in your life.

One of my earliest memories of Andy was his sophomore year. I visited him while he was living in Plimpton. He had this screen saver—back when screen savers were scrolling text and simulated starfields—that he couldn’t stop talking about. He made me sit down and watch it with him. It was this guy stranded on an island striving and trying to make his way off the island, but failing. Andy would watch this guy constantly, hoping and waiting for him to make it home. A screensaver that was supposed to keep his computer busy when Andy was away was keeping him busy. But to hear him talk about it made you believe that computers were created for screensavers like that.

In college, we served on praise team together. He would always lug his keyboard, amp, and keyboard stand from his dorm to Earl Hall. Week after week, he would barge through the door always about to drop everything. But he never complained, never whined, and most importantly, never asked me to carry them for him. Week after week, he showed up, instruments in hand.

When he was a junior, he was working downtown about 25 hours a week. On top of his already-packed Engineering schedule, his free time was completely soaked up. He would begin his day before 9am and with work and school, wouldn’t return until around midnight. At which point, he would begin studying for the day. During this time, he cut out all of his commitments… all of them except praise team. It was his joy. He even designed and paid for our very first KCCC Praise t-shirts. One time he came to our meeting and asked for prayer because that morning when he was shaving, he was unable to feel the razor on his cheek. That’s when he knew he was working too hard, when his nerve endings finally gave way. But he wasn’t complaining, he just wanted us to know and pray for him. And he still showed up for praise team, instruments in hand.

Andy was annoying to those close to him. Gimme a sec to explain. You see, Andy was very good at what he did. He picked up snowboarding in half a day, much to the chagrin of his brother. His first instrument was piano, and yet he played the guitar better than I do and I don’t even have a “2nd” instrument. But more than just snowboarding or guitar, the annoying thing about Andy was that he was so humble about his abilities. He was never in it for himself. He always just wanted to worship God with his life.

On two occasions, Andy came down and served with me in Atlanta with my church’s youth group. The first trip he paid for out of pocket and flew down on Christmas day. The second trip he drove down his new car to Alabama and back up again… willingly. Or at least if he wanted to complain about it, I never heard about it. At both retreats, he led praise and led a bible study. Have you ever seen Andy worship God? I mean really worship him… with his eyes pressed shut and his hand motioning the notes as he sings them? I knew at those moments that there was nothing to distract Andy from his love of worship. To hear him worship made you believe that Andy was created to worship God.

I can still hear him leading the seniors at my church during those retreats, yelling—motivating, never scolding—at these students, “Isn’t this awesome? Don’t you guys want to live like this?” For Andy things were so clear and so simple. You live for God. That’s that.

Andy and I were doing the pamphlet for a Youth Group retreat. He designed the cover and I was doing the inside. He took a bus from work and walked up French Hill Rd. to get to church so that we could work on the booklet together. We are both meticulous in formatting to the very last detail, so we stayed until 7:30am, at which time he called for his company car and went back to work. This was the amount of sacrifice that he had, for a booklet, for a retreat, for a bunch of kids. But he was doing it for God.

I never saw Andy play basketball. He didn’t like to play. But I did hear him constantly talk about video cards, RAM, motherboards, BIOS, and LINUX. I heard him talk about Matt Redman, Hillsongs, Caedmon’s Call, Delirious to no end. If you looked at his room, or rooms, in his home, you would very quickly see that Andy loved computers and music very much. He knew what he liked and he poured himself into it. He knew what he didn’t like and he didn’t try and front to impress anyone. I always respected him for that.

Passion. Sacrifice. Humility.

Passion for computers, for music, for worship. Sacrifice for praise team, for an Atlanta YG, for Bethany Youth Group. Humility in his abilities and standing before God. Passion for God, sacrifice for God, humility before God.

If you ponder those three terms as I have done this past sleepless night in Greensboro airport, you begin to see that those three qualities are at the core of the person of Christ. Jesus’ passion, Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ humility. Could it be that Andy was just trying to reflect the person of Jesus? His constant striving and trying to achieve Christ-likeness in this lonely and empty world? Well, Andy, I’ll tell you, the guy finally made if off the island and he is home now.

I would like to take a moment and address Andy directly: “Andy the hard thing is that you are gone. I won’t be able to see you smile, sing, laugh, or cry. But, the harder thing is that I won’t be able to learn from you anymore. No more computer questions, no more .mp3’s, no more relationship advice. Still, the hardest thing is that I will never have the chance to repay you for all you have taught me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better friend and a better brother to you.

The good thing is that you are in heaven. You are with God and I can hear you saying, “Rich, this is incredible! You wouldn’t believe it! God is tremendous!” The better thing is that you will be able to see me try and reflect the things I have learned from you with my life. I will honor God and honor you. Still, the best thing is that I will be with you in heaven soon enough, Andy, soon enough.”

Left for Dead

What sort of solitary and lonely life is that the only reason someone notices you are not alive anymore is because your roof developed a hole! Think of how many people you come across every single day. Think of all the opportunities for personal contact, where you can make an impression on someone, that you have every time you leave the house. Your co-workers, your neighbors, your family... If you were to die today, how soon would anyone know?

Read More

Old Feelings from Newtown

On Newtown Memorialthe morning of Friday, December 14th, I dropped off my 6 year-old daughter at her kindergarten class for the day. Just a little over an hour later, my perception of elementary schools as safe havens would irreparably violated. The tragedy at Newtown cuts deeper and lingers longer than other stories of shootings because of the age of the victims. The idea of terrorizing 6 and 7 year olds is seemingly inconceivable and unforgivable.

On Monday, Fort Lee residents and clergy gathered for a candlelight vigil in Monument Park (video). The passage I shared that night was from Habakkuk 1 and 3.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

~ Habakkuk 1:2-3

The prophet Habakkuk found himself amidst a society that had increasingly become rampant with violence and injustice. He called out to the Lord for salvation but felt that his cries went unanswered. Many hearts of the people in this nation today must be echoing the cry of Habakkuk.

Where are you, God? Why is there so much evil around us?

We have been here before: Columbine, VA Tech, Ft. Hood, Aurora.

And those are only the ones we remember. Even fewer people remember the spa in Georgia (5 killed), the high school in Ohio (3), the psych hospital in Pittsburgh (2), Oikos University in Oakland (7), the racial shootings in Tulsa (3), the coffee shop in Seattle (6), the Sikh temple in Wisconsin (7), the house near Texas A&M (3), the Empire State Building (2), the sign company in Minneapolis (7), the spa in Wisconsin (4), the mall in Oregon (3).

And those are just the shootings in the last 12 months!

How do we deal with the issue of injustice? How can we reconcile what we want to believe about God with the evidence around us in this world? CS Lewis writes is his theodicy work, The Problem of Pain:

If God were good, He would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

"God, we are not happy..." That is at the root of our struggle with events like Newtown. And either you don't want us to be happy or you can't make us happy. Either way, we're hopeless and left to fend for ourselves in this God-forsaken existence that some call Life.

Questioning God in the face of suffering is not a new phenomenon. However, it does place us on a steep slope that eventually leads to a subtle belief that the entire universe orbits around its singular most important object, Me. If we are wont to question God's goodness or power every time something unhappy happens, then guess what? You're already living in that universe.

So what can we believe?

No amount of blame put on gun laws, mental health or bad parenting is going to provide any solace to the problem of pain. Instead, it merely distracts us and masks the real underlying insoluble issue. Placing blame may provide solace, but it doesn't provide answers. No explanation will suffice. Nothing can explain Newtown or 9/11 or cancer or sex trafficking. And on we go living in that pain every day.

Instead, when I am faced with a situation that defies explanation and refuses resolution, I don't use that as a time to doubt God; it is precisely that time that I must have more faith in God. Once I take God out of the equation, then we are left in a world where individual decisions of happiness and justice reign. And nothing distinguishes my views from the views of murderers and terrorists. With a belief in a sovereign authority in the universe, then (and only then) do I have a platform to stand on and outrightly reject the act as wrong.

When the unexplainable occurs, resist the urge to dismiss God's goodness or power, because once we lose God, we lose all sense of justice and we lose any right to punish violators of injustice.

Habakkuk chapter 3 ends with his deepened commitment of faith in God, despite the violence and pain around him. There has been no explanation and there has been no resolution. Rather, there was an acknowledgement that a world of injustice without God was worse that a world of injustice being ruled by a just God.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.

~ Habakkuk 3:17-19