Dear Mentalists: The Emotional Appeal

I had a friend who worked for a well known stage illusionist. One of his jobs for this illusionist -- when they were breaking in a new trick, or performing in a new theater -- was to look at the illusion from every other seat in the house. So he would just hop from seat to seat during the rehearsals looking at the illusion to check that it looked perfect from that angle. I like that dedication to making sure an effect really fools people. You get this with sleight-of-hand too with people practicing in front mirrors at three different angles or videotaping their performances. In mentalism though, it sometimes seems like there is no testing involved at all.

But don't worry! I love mentalism. I love performing it, and I love watching it with the uninitiated to get their honest feedback about what sorts of things fool them and what don't. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be making a series of posts about techniques and presentational angles in mentalism that I don't think work quite as well as a lot of performers might think. Today I want to talk about...

The Emotional Appeal 

You think by couching your effect in some maudlin story, or telling people that the effect is only possible because of the deep connection you share, that you're touching their heart strings and giving them a powerful experience. Maybe you are. But just as often (if not more), what I've seen is this type of presentation getting in the way of your ability to judge the strength and viability of your material.

If you want to lay some sappy story or a message of self-empowerment over a trick, you first need to perform that trick a number of times without that presentation. Here's why: With an overly-earnest presentation, people will be too embarrassed for you to call you out on a weak trick. I think many mentalists recognize this subconsciously and they use this as a bit of a self-defense technique when performing something with questionable methods. They'll couch the effects in something very personal or sentimental, and because people are nice and generally don't want to call other people out, they'll nod appreciatively and give you a polite, "Wow. That's great," at the end of your trick. 

If you perform mentalism regularly and get a lot of "pleasant" reactions, this could very well be your issue. When I used to perform a lot of straight mentalism, I loved doing very personal, intense presentations. And I noticed that some tricks would completely overwhelm people and fuck with their heads. And others would get a pleasant response. At first I thought it was an issue of presentation because they were seemingly fooled by both effects. But after testing them in different environments I just realized the polite reactions were people who weren't that fooled by the method, but who liked me well enough that they weren't going to call me on my shit, especially when I'd presented it in such a heartfelt manner. 

I then came up with a little test for the effects I would perform. Before working on a real presentation for them, I wanted to evaluate the foundation of the effect first. So I would perform it a few times with this style of presentation: "Hey, ya big dingus. I'm going to read your mind now, because I'm a genius and you're a fucking idiot, so brace yourself." Maybe not those exact words, but that attitude. Now, just try and do one of your cute prop-less math-based "mind-reading" tricks with that presentation. You will get eviscerated. But when you find material that stands-up to this type of antagonistic presentation -- where the spectators are blown away despite themselves -- and then you add on a presentation that is personal or emotional you will find yourself getting those explosively strong reactions you've imagined. (Reactions, honestly, that I'm not always quite comfortable receiving, but the type I think a lot of people are hoping for.)

You might say, "Yes, but if I'm not openly antagonistic, the spectator won't be looking as hard at everything to find the secret. They'll give me the benefit of the doubt. They'll go along with what I say." And yes, that's true. But here's the thing: your spectator knows when they're playing along and their reactions will be in accord with that knowledge.

Yes, use emotion, use a personal connection, but layer it on top of an effect that stands strong on its own. Don't rely on emotion to cover a weak method. The difference between an effect that is amplified by the emotion and an effect that relies on it is the difference between the rumble of the rocking bed of passionate lovers, and the metronomic mattress squeak of a sympathy fuck.