Amanda Palmer - The Art of Asking

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In the unlikely event that you haven't heard of this TED talk yet and haven't seen it either, I strongly suggest that you head over to the TED website now and watch it before you read on. It'll be well worth your 13:40 minutes, I promise.

Done? Okay, let's move on then.

This talk instantly shot up to the top of my personal list of favourite talks when I saw it for the first time. And after re-watching it a couple of times, it still fascinates me and draws me in. So I thought I'd have a closer look and see why that is so - but also to see where there is room for improvement.

The Good

Suspense: The beginning creates suspense: What's going on here? Why is she standing on a box? Why is she not talking - or even moving? And then, with her eyes moving from left to right, she acknowledges the presence of the audience and draws us in before she even begins to speak.

Gestures: I especially like that hand gesture she makes on several occasions to illustrate the doubts she had in the back of her mind: Is this fair?

Stories: She tells lots and lots of little stories - and they are all relevant. Like pieces of a puzzle, they eventually come together to form something whole.

Connecting the dots: I like how she's referring back to previous stories, events or things she mentioned before. For example, the guy from the opening band who didn't want to go out there with the hat, the hat in general, the doubts (Is this fair?), the 25,000 people buying her record (considered a failure by the record label) vs. supporting her Kickstarter project (considered a huge success by everybody) and, of course, the flower (Thank you). All of this really helps in pulling the somewhat random collection of stories together.

Authenticity: All the time throughout the talk, she comes across as an authentic person. You may think she's playing a role on some occasions, but it's consistent throughout the talk and consistent with the photos she shows and the stories she tells; this is her, the real Amanda Palmer, not some artificial "Amanda Palmer, Indie Rock Star" personality.

The ... Not So Good

I you still haven't watched the talk, now would be a really good time to do so. I want you to feel the same joy and excitement that I felt when I first watched it and my nitpicking here may take some of that away. Go on, I'll wait ...

Okay, so here goes.

Remote: I found it slightly distracting that she has to look at the remote almost every time she advances her slides. Which I would actually blame on the organisers for giving her a remote with a touch screen (you can see it clearly in some shots). A remote with real buttons, that you can feel without looking at it, would have been better.

Pauses, or lack thereof: Amanda does a great job using a pause at the beginning. Later on, however, she misses one or two opportunities where a longer pause could have made a strong impact. Especially after the bit where she talks about letting strangers draw on her. There's this great moment (and quote) where she stands there with her arms stretched out:

I trust you this much.
Should I?
Show me!

And here, another two or three seconds pause would have given the audience a chance to ponder on this thought a little longer, for better impact.

Movement: Once she steps down from the box, she moves around a lot - maybe a bit too much. I understand that's how she is but - especially in contrast to the static beginning - it's almost too much movement and not always in sync with her talk.

Pointing to the box: Near the end of the talk, when she's closing in on her main message, she refers back to the box that's standing behind her on the stage a lot - too often, actually. There are a few points where she's pointing to the box too early. You wonder why she's doing it and then you hear the next sentence and only then does it become clear.

Breathing: It's obvious that she's rather nervous (and who wouldn't be), but she's running out of breath a few times, which I found surprising, given that she's a singer. There's one such moment right at the beginning, when she jokes Everybody always wants to know who are these freaks in real life ... (audible catching of breath) Hello.

Metallica: This is the only part of her talk that I don't like - at all. I understand she's trying to show the contrast here, between the "old thinking" of bands like Metallica (don't allow copies, sue everybody) and her approach (give everything away, but ask for donations), but it comes across as a sideswipe. If she simply left out this entire bit (It's like Metallica over here ... Amanda Palmer over here ...) it wouldn't have diminished her point one bit. I even see it as an unnecessary distraction at that point. She's about to make an important statement but takes attention away from her message for a cheap shot (and not a very original one) at another band. I always tune out this bit now when I watch the talk.

Sweat: This is a topic that people avoid to even mention because it's so yucky. The fact that Amanda does sweat a lot under her arms is apparent from the beginning. The camera crew and production do their best to hide it, thankfully. Still, maybe a darker tshirt would have been a better choice.

Stories: Wait, didn't I just list this under "The Good"? There's one problem with the stories that she's telling and that is that there are so many of them. It comes across as random jumping around, until you see things coming together. My first impulse would have been to recommend to leave out a few of these stories. After thinking about it some more (and watching the talk a few more times), I realized that you couldn't leave out a single story. They are all relevant. And she does a good job in referring back and connecting them. It just takes a lot of time for it to become clear what she's aiming at with these stories. But, to be honest, I couldn't think of a way to improve that.

The Verdict?

I bet you didn't notice half of these things when you first watched the talk. Which goes to show that passion, authenticity and storytelling really help getting your point across and that nobody's going to notice all the little mistakes you're inevitably going to make. I mean, it's easy for me to write this list, sitting here in a comfy chair. It's something else entirely to stand up there on the stage, especially that stage, and having to do a talk.

Oh, and if you think a talk like this is easy to pull off, read her epic (and I do mean epic) blog post It takes a village to write a TED talk to learn how much work and help really went into making this remarkable performance.

Which is another important lesson to draw from this talk: Nothing beats preparation and rehearsing.

If you'd like me to talk or write about this topic, you can hire me to do so.
Please email me for details.
Creative Commons Licence "Amanda Palmer - The Art of Asking" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.