Music TED Conferences

What went through Amanda Palmer’s head minutes before stepping on the TED stage

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
Amanda Palmer at TED

Amanda Palmer, in the backstage light. Photo by: (Well, we’re working with our stage manager to track down who exactly took it)

The image you see above is Amanda Palmer just before stepping onto the TED2013 stage to give her talk, “The art of asking.” She asked one of the crew members to snap this photo of her with daisy in hand.

As our lineup of TED2014 speakers finish writing their talks and start the long process of rehearsing, it felt like the right moment to ask Palmer what it feels like to give a talk. Below, she tells us why speaking at TED is different from playing a show, and why she thinks creative couples should consider time apart a really good thing.

So, tell us a bit about this image.

It was snapped about two minutes before I went on stage. That waiting was agony. I was just trying to keep my mind incredibly calm and empty. But the light backstage there was beautiful — it was completely dark with these shafts of blue light beaming through the curtains, like rays of freezing sunlight. I can’t turn off my photo-brain, so I handed my phone to one of the backstage techs, and he snapped this. I’d forgotten about it until a few weeks ago when one of my assistants reminded me that it existed, since I’d sent it around to my own team on that very day, but never publicly uploaded it.

Did getting ready to speak at TED feel different than getting ready for a show?

Well, there’s a few factors here. I’m a seasoned performer and I’ve played for crowds of thousands — so the idea of getting up in front of a lot of people doesn’t inherently shake me. I’ve just done it too much to have general stage fright. Even the idea that this wasn’t “my crowd” is something I’ve had to grapple with — I’ve opened up for bands, like Nine Inch Nails or Cyndi Lauper, where I’ve had to look out at a sea of five thousand faces who had no idea who I was and introduce myself and my art from scratch. But this crowd was not only filled with really intimidating people (hi Al Gore!) judging the performance, there was also that nattering voice in the back of my head reminding me that the real reach wasn’t going to be in the room — it was going to be on film, in a little 3-inch box on someone’s laptop. And that’s always difficult. I’ve learned this from years of performing and being filmed, and watching footage: If a performance doesn’t work in a room, it almost never works on film. But a performance working in a room doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’ll translate on camera. I always remember what one of my photography teachers taught me: “visualize the print.” Keep the final, end result as an image in your head as you frame and choose a shutter speed. So I was conscious of that, though it made it harder to be completely present. If all I’d had to do was relate this idea to 1,500 seated people — cameras off — I have the feeling my talk probably would have been better and more immediate.

So, how did you go about writing your TED Talk?

Oh lordy. It was a long process. I wrote a blog post called “It takes a village to write a TED Talk,” where I discuss how my relationship with TED got started and how things evolved. A few years before, I’d had an idea for a talk, or a book or a something drawing a direct line between street performing and the new music business model of crowdfunding, with the hope that I could explain to people why trust and a real human encounter — not just cash — is at the heart of a lot of exchanges and transactions, especially artistic ones. Since launching my Kickstarter and looking at so many other crowdfunding pitches being uploaded via video by so many musicians, I kept seeing the same painful thing over and over: artists being agonizingly over-apologetic in their asking. So many pitches started out with: “I’m so, SO sorry to beg for money like this, and this is really embarrassing, and I’m sorry, REALLY sorry, but I’m about to make a record and…” This sort of language was driving me MAD. I wanted to call them all — many of them my friends — and be like: “Dude, listen to me. JUST ASK. It’s FINE. STOP APOLOGIZING.” So in the back of my mind, the talk was aimed at my friends. I wanted them to see this talk and feel like they’d been given a magical get-out-of-shame-free card to just go straight to their fan bases without the guilt and agony they all seemed to be carrying.

I wrote the first draft of the talk about six weeks before TED itself, and I just let the words flow into an email document. I’m a “one sitting” fanatic — I don’t like thinking in chunks, I prefer to vomit everything out onto the page. So I thought a lot, then set aside an evening, wrote down everything I thought was relevant in one huge email document, and then recorded myself reading what I’d written with a timer on my iPhone. My orignal draft clocked in at about 27 minutes. I laughed when I saw that; my talk had to be 12. So I started paring down, economizing stories, cutting ideas, trying to condense what I was saying into the shortest but most powerful sentences possible. Then, once I had the basic draft down to about 14 or 15 minutes … I rehearsed. I just paced around my basement, timing myself on my phone, and recited the talk over and over and over again until I drove myself crazy.

The hidden hero of the talk was Jamy Ian Swiss, who chatted with me over the phone and listened to me rehearse on Skype, and gave me brutally honest feedback that helped me narrow the ideas down to their barest, most concentrated form. I seriously don’t know what I would have done without the guy.

In the weeks leading up to TED, I gave the talk to my friends over the phone or Skype. I threw a TED Talk rehearsal potluck party for about 40 friends and family members. I gave the talk to journalists I knew over tea at the kitchen table. I went over to the Berkman Center at Harvard (where I’m now a fellow) and gave the talk to a bunch of academic types. Everybody had input — an idea here, an idea there, an “ooh, I’d avoid that” comment, and so forth. I listened and took feedback and, as I rehearsed and rehearsed the talk into the ground, I nipped and tucked and cut — and sometimes added — then cut again. It was an ever-morphing pile of words. Even when I was at TED, in the three days leading up to the talk, I would take long walks around Long Beach with my headphones in and pretend I was talking on the phone, so people didn’t think I was nuts (they probably did anyway). But I was just rehearsing the talk, under my breath and in motion, gesticulations and all. I couldn’t rehearse it sitting still in a hotel room: that made no sense. If you’re going to be pacing on stage, you need to rehearse somewhere you can pace, and have distractions and people around.

I finally got the talk down to 12 minutes a few days before delivering it. I still went over like a mofo — I relaxed too much and wound up about a minute too long. I was so glad Chris didn’t come on stage and gong-show me off.

What surprised you most about the process of writing a talk?

I found it FASCINATING the way words on a page are different than words in a mouth. I realized you can’t just type a talk onto paper and then read your typed words aloud: a talk has to be talked, and then captured somehow in a way you can remember it. It’s something I noticed when I was watching other people’s talks online and live at TED — you could tell who was actually talking the way a human being talks and who was reading out of a written document emblazoned in their brain. There’s a huge difference. This is why it was so incredibly helpful for me to have Jamy as a bounce-board. We wouldn’t just email back and forth about my talk, we’d get on the phone and actually talk about the ideas, like people. And every once in a while I’d say something — the right combination of words would spill out — and we’d both yell, “WRITE THAT DOWN!! YES!!! EXACTLY!!!”

Did anything strike you about the audience or the auditorium while you were on stage?

I’m just going to come right out and say it: TED is weird. It’s beautifully weird, but it’s so hard to explain how it feels to be within this giant vortex of minds and thoughts mixed with hyper-organization and super-production. It’s a little overwhelming. I got a musician friend of mine a gig this year at TED (I can’t announce who it is, but I’m REALLY EXCITED) and I was trying to explain to him what being at and performing at TED actually felt like, and I found myself using words like “intimidating” and “mind-blowing” and “hard to explain” and “intense” a lot. Our world is a punk rock world of clubs and house parties and festival shows where the environment is very “whatever.” Things break, you deal; things work, you’re happy; things don’t work, you laugh. But TED definitely had this intensity of: This is it. You get one shot. As a musician, I assume it’s what some performers must feel when they sing at the Grammys, or on Letterman. It’s like: This is your one moment, everybody’s watching, DON’T FUCK IT UP. That being said: everything in the environment is benevolently placed to make sure you don’t. The staff backstage all had excellent, non-stressed-out, zen attitudes, which is essential. The general vibe of the tech crew was calm and assuring without being too self-serious. Factors like that are golden in making sure you get dumped onstage feeling like you’re in excellent hands, and for that I  was really grateful.

Oh … one funny thing I forgot to mention: my husband, Neil Gaiman, Mr. Fancy-Pants Writer. Neil came along with me to TED last year. (And he’s coming with me this year and, hopefully, one of these years he’ll do his own talk — I can’t wait for that.) He had already been giving me all sorts of personal space in the weeks leading up as I turned into a talk-obsessed wife with little brain-space left for a husband. He’s been around me on certain trips when I’ve had to do enormous, stressful performances: we had a particularly sticky marital/personal-space dilemma a few years ago when I was about to do a massive show at the Sydney Opera House. I was tearing my hair out in rehearsal and, for my personal preparation, I need alone-time to make weird noises and pace around. But we were sharing one little hotel room. It got a little hairy. So this time we learned our lesson, and we booked two hotel rooms for the three days leading up the talk, just so I could be alone at night with my crazy brain — editing, talking to myself, pacing, waking up and writing down thoughts and last-minute notes to myself — and not getting lost in the ongoing chit-chat we usually have going when we share a room. And as soon as the talk was over, we celebrated and moved back in together.

After my talk posted, I was approached by a few publishers, and I decided to write a book based on the ideas in the talk, which is exactly what I’m doing now. Neil and I are going through the same exercise on a macro level: I’m in Australia for two months to squeeze this book out of my head on a crazy deadline, and he’s in the States, squatting in friends’ houses and meeting his own writing deadlines. We won’t see each other, you’ll be tickled to know, until TED in Vancouver. (So if we’re showing annoying levels of PDA, you may now understand why. Forgive us.) Maybe my next TED talk will be about marriage and personal space. I’d suggest a revolutionary new solution to a happy, healthy marriage, at least for creative types: just don’t live together. Or … at least not all the time. It’s so much easier.

Read Amanda Palmer’s “The Epic TED Blog, Part One” »

See her 8-foot long talk »

And read more about this book she’s writing »

Comments (11)

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  • commented on Feb 18 2014

    Amanda Palmer’s first TEDTalk was the first “Talk” I’d watched. Awe-inspiring and honest; I’ve been a fan of hers, and TED’s, since. Thank you, Amanda. Rise on!

  • John Berkowity commented on Feb 17 2014

    Amanda Palmer is a great artist and really progressive thinker. We need more women like that, who can make a significant change in the world. The process has already started. Girl Rising and other programs are fighting the under-education of women all over the world.

    I have a huge expectation about her book, and I want to follow her train of thought. It is not very common to see someone to formulate his ideas as sharp as Amanda.

  • sakkasem boonyaphet commented on Feb 11 2014

    Amanda Palmer is Great! Wonderfulpackage

  • Pingback: Why TEDActive? Thoughts on what makes this conference “an ‘a-ha’ experience” | Health & Wellness Chicago

  • Jim Krenz commented on Feb 11 2014

    Amanda is right about her husband.

    Yes, Neil Gaiman must speak at TED. It has to happen.
    His spoken words will make the world a better place.
    Are you listening TED? Get Neil on your stage.

  • commented on Feb 10 2014

    Reblogged this on Spooky Ghosts and commented:
    I like her a lot, she is a Neato Dorito.

  • maurizio imparato commented on Feb 10 2014

    thank you Amanda for this amazing talk…and Kate for the backstage!

  • commented on Feb 10 2014

    Reblogged this on zmkrodriguez.

  • commented on Feb 10 2014

    Amanda Palmer rocks the house. Thank you for this invaluable look at creating ideas that contribute and last.

  • commented on Feb 10 2014

    Reblogged this on I Love Geekology 101.