This is a foundational idea of the type of magic I like to perform. It's something that has been implicit in many of the routines I've written up here, but now I want to make it explicit. If you want to make your magic performances more powerful and have them resonate in a way that feels greater than just "a trick" then this is a concept that I think is very valuable.
I should start by saying that sometimes a magic trick should be just a trick. And there's nothing wrong with performing that way, and only ever performing that way. (I'm not advocating for a style of performance; not with this site, or with the books I've written. I'm only giving the details of a style that has worked well for me and I think could work well for others.) Certain tricks should just be fun and light. It would be incongruent to try and make sponge bunnies some deep mystery (in most cases).
But if you have an effect that you think could provide a small profound moment for a spectator, then I've found a good way to increase the likelihood of that moment landing with them is to include a buy-in in your presentation.
What is a buy-in? A buy-in is a moment in an effect where the trick only proceeds because the spectator agrees to give you something. They "buy in" to the effect. They invest.
A "buy in" is something that would seem unnecessary if what you were doing was just a trick. And thus the effect feels like something else. I don't want a spectator to think they're seeing "real magic," I want them to feel like they're having a magical experience, regardless of what they know to be true. A roller-coaster can feel like a scary, dangerous experience, even though your rational mind knows it's not. An effect can feel like a magical experience without asking your spectator to believe in magic.
Here's an example:
Performance A: Let's say you write down a name on a business card and then I read your mind and tell you what name you wrote down. That might be a good trick, a great trick, or a mediocre trick.
Performance B: Let's say you write down a name on a business card. I try and read your mind, but after a couple of guesses I fail. I think it might be Donna or Deanna, but it's actually Debbie. I consider this for a moment, thinking about why it might not have worked. Then I ask, "Would it be okay if we shut the windows and doors to this room?" You're uncertain why, but you agree to it and join me in lowering the windows and closing the door. We try the trick again. You write down a name and after a few moments of thought I'm able to nail it.
The buy-in here is you agreeing to help me seal off the room. I'm getting you to invest some energy into something that doesn't seemingly play a role in the execution of the effect. This may make the trick stronger, but even if it doesn't, it makes the experience richer. It adds a dimension to what is taking place.
[This is based on an actual consulting gig I had once where—when we were stuck for an idea—the guy leading the group would make us close the doors and windows to "trap the ideas in the room." To which I asked, "What if we're locking them out of the room?"]
The Permission Buy-In: This is often used by mentalists. Most notably, to me, Derren Brown. But I'm sure it goes back long before that. It's something I use too whenever I'm doing anything "mind" related. You're about to read someone's thoughts and you say, "Is it okay if I read your mind? I'm not going to say anything you wouldn't want me to. If it feels invasive, or if you want me to back off at any point, just let me know. Are you okay with this?" Here you're asking the person to give you their permission to move forward. Don't make a joke of it, just ask it straight. Not only would this be the polite thing to do if you really were going to read someone's mind, but it's a strong moment where they're giving you the go-ahead to complete the trick. They're becoming complicit in the fiction. It's a little bit of theater that makes them less likely to immediately think, "I guess he peeked at my drawing somehow."
The Time Buy-In: This is my favorite and the one you see used a lot in my routines. We tend to think the best magic is short and punchy, and to some extent I agree with that. In most cases I would rather do a five second trick than a four minute trick. But if you can craft an interesting hour-long experience, it will reverberate much more than the same effect done over the course of a minute. In general, the more time your spectator invests in a trick, the stronger the impact. I'm not suggesting you make your tricks needlessly long, but there's nothing wrong with having a mystery that plays out over time.
Magicians tend to be hyper-critical about the time an effect takes. This is, once again, an example of a professional magician's concern being applied where it's not applicable: in the non-professionals performing arena. Yes, when you're performing table-side for people who might not have asked to see you, you want to be a little snappy and keep things moving. That's not necessary or even desirable for the amateur performer. "I don't do the Open Prediction effect because it takes too much time to deal through a deck." Huh? It takes 45 seconds to deal through a deck. If you get the sense that you're performing for someone who would be bothered by taking the time to deal through a deck, you should not be performing anything for that person. They're not interested. Move on.
The Procedural Buy-In: We bemoan tricks that are "procedure heavy," but there's a difference between a procedure that is required by the method and a procedure that is part of the presentation. The former is likely a weakness, especially if you don't give it a context. But the latter can often serve to make the effect more compelling. There was a time I would have believed the most direct presentation was always the best. But I'm pretty far from that position these days. "You're thinking of a card. Okay. Concentrate... concentrate... the four of diamonds!" That's fine, but it's a little too one dimensional. "You're thinking of a card. Okay, I'm going to try and find out what it is. But first, would you mind taking part in a synchronicity exercise with me?" Yes, it delays the effect. But it requires the spectator to buy in and, for me, gets a better response.
The Benevolent Scam
Here's what I think is going on with buy-ins and why I've found they add significantly to my performances.
1. The first reason, as I mentioned, is that they add texture to a performance. "He read my mind. Well...no... of course he didn't. But he seemed to. But why did we have to close the doors and windows? That must mean something." A buy-in can misdirect and broaden the mystery because it's not strictly tied to the process of what the spectator sees as a part of the trick.
2. The Ben Franklin Effect. In Franklin's autobiography he quoted an old maxim that said, "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged." In other words, it's not that we like people who do stuff for us; we like people that we've done stuff for. A buy-in requires someone to give us something (time, permission, their engagement in some procedure). This doesn't make them feel like we owe them something. It doesn't make them more detached. It doesn't make them think, "Okay, I've done my part, now leave me alone." Instead it makes them more interested and tuned in to the whole process.
3. Similarly I think there is something of a benevolent scam going on. If you invest $5 in some money-making scheme of mine, you might be quick to call it bullshit and move on. But if you invest $50,000, you don't become more skeptical. You're literally and figuratively more invested in the project. You want to see it out. And if I tell you we just need another $20,000 to get the project off the ground you're even more onboard. This is how many scams work. They get you to invest so much time and energy that you don't want to see it as a scam. Incorporating buy-ins into your effects is a sweetly gentle way of "scamming" your audience into seeing the experience as not some trivial trick, but maybe something more compelling.
Stranger Things: Multiple Buy-Ins
This is my favorite example of layering buy-ins to transform a five second trick into something different—even though it's an identical five second trick. This is not something I've done, but my friend has performed it a few times.
The original trick is a floating finger ring effect. You borrow a finger ring, lay it on the palm of your hand, it stands in its edge, then raises in the air, then floats to the other hand. I'd seen my friend do this in bars for a few years and it always got a decent response. I think it suffers from the same thing the floating bill does in that most people will naturally assume it's suspended from something, but with a borrowed ring I think there's a little more shade to it.
Last winter I went with some friends to explore an abandoned/decommissioned nuclear power plant on Long Island.
The place had a weird, creepy, strange vibe. It was exciting. I mentioned to one of my friends (who also does magic) that it would probably be a cool place to do some kind of trick.
A few weeks later he did just that. He was out at a bar talking with a couple friends and asked them if they would be willing to come along with him to see something a little freaky he had discovered at the old nuclear power plant. "It might be a little weird. I don't think it's dangerous, really. But I only want you to come if you're 100% onboard." Who could resist that invitation? So they drove 20 minutes out to the plant, got out and walked about a third of a mile in the snow around the fence until they got to the "right spot."
"Do you feel it?" he asked.
Standing outside in the winter in a deserted area by an old nuclear power plant you're bound to feel something. "Here...uhm...let's see... oh, give me your ring." He takes the borrowed ring places it on the palm of his hand, waits a good long while, until eventually, by the light of the moon and a cell phone, the ring flips up on its end, raises in the air and floats to the other hand. Mayhem.
They know he does magic. They know, on some level, it's a trick. But it's also something more because they've invested more in it than they would in "a trick."
You might say it was just the change in location that makes it more powerful, but I disagree. Had they already been there—had they been on some tour of the location or something—and he said, "Hey, want to see something weird?" I think it would not have had as great an impact. By giving him their permission to go off and do something potentially unsettling, by giving him their time, by giving him their energy to engage in the process, they had "bought in" to something beyond a magic trick so that's what the experience was for them. Even though the trick itself was identical to the way he performed it when he did so in a bar.
You might feel guilty taking an hour out of someone's day and making them trek out to the middle of nowhere to show them a trick you could do in their living room. I get that. But I don't think you can say that experience is a waste of their time. I genuinely think it's more worth it to take an hour out of someone's life for an adventure they'll always remember than it is to take two minutes out of their life to show them a 4-ace trick that they'll forget the details of by the following day.
The Universal Buy-In
These lines I'm about to give you are a gift. I use them, or a variation of them, frequently. They're not a gift from me, however. Unfortunately I don't know who to credit these lines to. I have a few friends I share an Evernote account with where we deposit phrases, images, and ideas that we think might be useful in some way. And this was a phrase my friend copied down from somewhere about two years ago, but now he has no idea where it came from. It might have come from a magic book or a novel or some new-age self-help book, he doesn't remember. Hopefully someone can let me know who to credit for this.
This is not something you would use before a 4-item multiple out routine. Save this for when you have a big, immersive trick you want to really affect people with. The language is kind of grandiose and meant to get people in the state of mind that they're about to experience something exciting. People sometimes email me and ask how I get my friends to engage with these types of effects, and part of it may be that I use lines like this to get them in the right headspace. It's a permission buy-in. It asks for their permission to go forward. It asks them to trust me and asks them to immerse themselves in what's to come.
Here it is (and if you know where it comes from, tell me)...