Presentation Week Part 2: The Jerx Patter Algorithm

Four incidents that shaped my style of patter and presentation:

1. 10 years ago, my friend in NYC floated a dollar bill for an appreciative group of spectators. When he was done I asked him, "What do you think they're thinking? Do any of them not know it's just suspended from something that's too small to see?" I wasn't asking to be a dick. I was genuinely curious. And so was he. So we put an ad up on Craigslist and paid 10 people to come to a rehearsal studio to show them live magic and performances of magic on video. After watching the floating bill trick we asked for their thoughts, and they all politely answered that they didn't know how it was done. Then we said that we would double what we were paying them if they could guess how it was done and they all said, "I guess it's hanging on a string that's too small to see?" Nothing gives you greater insight into how people really view your performance than paying them. 

As the years have gone on I've conducted dozens more of these "focus groups." Mostly for the benefit of other performers, but I always include some of my own ideas to test as well. And one of the things I tested over and over was how patter affects people's perception of a trick. My theory at that time (and it certainly wasn't unique to me) was that it just gets in the way of connecting with a spectator. During one of these sessions I was discussing an effect with one of the people we brought in and I was asking him what he disliked about the presentation and he said, "Well, the story was obviously fake. Which was fine. But then there was no excuse for how boring it was." And he was right.

You want to know what's not an interesting story? "Some guy shuffled my cards face up and face down when I wasn't looking!" That is not a story you would ever tell in real life without accompanying it with Triumph. So stop telling it. No one believes that story anyways. So now you're telling a boring story just so you can show them this card trick. It's like performing a boring play just to show off your set design or lighting skills. It's desperate.

2. I noticed that every time I performed Paul Harris' Invisible Palm routine, people would end up examining my palm and their palm. Even though the presentation is ludicrous and obviously horse-shit (that I'm absorbing the cards into the palm of my hand) the routine is so powerful that they almost have to fight with their own brain not to believe it because they have no other explanation to latch onto. How far can we push this, I wondered. How insane an idea can we get them to almost believe?

3. This is a non-magical story (at least not in our sense of the word magical). One time I dated this girl who was visiting NYC for the summer from France. She was a student; auburn-haired; and had the most insane collection of delicate, intricate, sexy undergarments she acquired from working at a lingerie shop in Paris. That has nothing to do with the story. I'm just enjoying the memory. She was a vision and it was the perfect summer romance, except things got very serious, very quickly. At one point she called it off. We were spending almost every day together and setting ourselves up for heartbreak, plus she wasn't really experiencing the city in the way she had planned, she was just spending all her time with some guy. I understood. But a few nights later I was desperate to see her and I headed over to the apartment she was staying at. I knocked on the door and immediately realized I had no idea what I was going to say. And in the 12 seconds it took for her to get to the door I weighed what I assumed were my two options:

Option A) I could be honest. "I just wanted to see you. I know it's maybe not a great idea and I promised I'd give you space..." etc. etc. 

Option B) I could come up with some reasonable justification for being there. Tell her I think my library card fell out of my pocket the last time I was here and could I check behind her bed or whatever. 

She came to the door. "What are you doing here?" she asked. Her guard was up, as I knew it would be. I panicked and went with an unknown "option C." 

"Huh?... Oh, this is embarrassing," I said. "I must have sleepwalked to your apartment. Can I get a glass of water?"

"You sleepwalked onto the subway?" she said, unconvinced.

"Hmmm... I mean, I'm not wet, so I must not have swam across the river. So I guess.... How about that glass of water?"

She slipped a finger into the waistband of my jeans and pulled me into her apartment.

The next night I knocked on her door again.

"Oh wow. I didn't even realize this was your place. I hate to be a bother, but did you see a ferret come in here? Mine got out of my apartment and I've been chasing it all over town and I thought I saw it slip in here. Did you see him? He's wearing a little cape, if that helps."

"But you do not have ownership of a ferret," she said in her French-accented, cutely-awkward, but probably technically perfect English.

"Yes. Well, no, not now I don't. I got him this morning, but he ran off after the cape fitting. I could have sworn I saw him duck in here."

"You better have a look," she said, opening the door wide.

I stepped inside. "Kurt? Kuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrtttttttttttttt!?"

The next night I showed up with a piece of paper in my hand. It read Free Cake with her address underneath. "These are hung up all over the neighborhood," I said. "Is this some kind of prank? If so I'll help you take them down. If not I thought I'd help you bake."

Later that night we were in her bed on the verge of sleep. "Come to me tomorrow," she said, kissing me. "I want to hear your excuse."

As I lay there I thought, I may be wrong. But I don't think it's just young, french girls who appreciate this kind of nonsense. I think a variation on it could work with anyone; young, old, male, female, of any culture. The world wants to be charmed.

4. For years I had performed The Perfectionist by Paul Harris. In it you shuffle red cards into black cards, but then they're immediately separate. Then you shuffle red into red and black into black, yet somehow the colors end up completely mixed together. It's a little hard to explain, but track it down, it's good. It's impromptu and there is a great display at the end where the deck is spread face up in two distinct piles, all the red cards on one side, all the black cards on the other and with no real moves at all the piles are shown to be a shuffled mess. I always loved performing it and it was always amazing to people.

One day I realized that almost 80% of the time I show someone a card trick, they give me the perfect lead in line to this effect. I ask them to shuffle the cards and they do some thing where they take half the deck in each hand and kind of jam them together. "Sorry," they say, "I can't shuffle."

"That gypsy cursed you too, huh?"

They look at me like, what?

"Yeah, that happened to me as well. I was walking down the street, through the intersection. I wasn't paying attention because I was concentrating on my deck of cards and I bumped into that wrinkled old gypsy. Hit her pretty hard I guess. She was super pissed. Grabbed my wrist with one hand and waved the other hand in front of my eyes and said, 'Nunca Shuffle-atore.' And now I can't shuffle. That happened to you too? What? Oh... you just never learned to shuffle. I see. Well, you're actually lucky. Let me show you what I'm talking about."

Then I show them how I "can't shuffle" because when I shuffle the red and black cards together they separate. The only way I've gotten around the curse is to not shuffle the cards in order to get them to shuffle, i.e. the red and black cards completely mix together after clearly being shown separate.

And while it's hard to gauge these things it felt like the interest and engagement of the people I was performing this for went up a huge amount. One thing I can quantify is that while no one ever said, "Hey, show him the one where the red and black cards separate and then magically go back together." I have had multiple people say, "Hey, show him how the gypsy cursed you so you can't shuffle."

You see where this is going, right? I'm saying up the bullshit, and make it entertaining. Don't say it tongue in cheek, play it completely straight. You don't need to do it with a wink because what you're saying should be so incredible that it's obvious you don't intend to be taken seriously. 

Create a bizarre, off-kilter world and then use your effects to allow the spectators a peek into that world, or some evidence of that world. I'm not trying to get you to do anything different. You're already creating worlds. You're just creating boring ones where you can tell what hand someone is holding something in by their body language, or where aces change places with jacks for some reason.

Here is my style, condensed into a set of rules:

The Jerx Patter Algorithm:

  • Your script should be interesting enough to stand on its own.
  • Your effect should be even better than the patter.
  • If the patter isn't interesting enough to stand on its own, then drop it.
  • If the trick isn't better than the script, then drop the trick, just tell the story.

Of course to go this route you need to become better at coming up with ideas and creating stories, and that doesn't interest a lot of people, I know. But that is what captures people and it's what they remember. I've performed a lot of magic for a lot of different people. And people used to try and pimp me out by saying, "Hey, show my friend a trick." But I hardly ever get that anymore. Now it's people saying, "Show them how you have your great-uncle's polaroids of things that haven't happened yet." Or, "Do the one where you pause time." Or, "Tell them how you got kicked out of your religious education class as a kid." And that's actually a true story where I did a one-coin style routine with the eucharist.

Tomorrow's post will contain some more thoughts on this and also the greatest presentation for a headline prediction ever.