Presentational Density

A lot of magicians say, "I want to create experiences, not just show tricks." But what does that really mean and how do you go about it? In this post I'm going to tell you what I think is the key to making that happen. 

I received an email from reader George Koros which said the following:

I did the Deja Vu Method [From JAMM #8] for my girlfriend. She was genuinely disoriented by the experience, to the point that even now (weeks later) if I look at her and earnestly say "Have you ever heard of the Deja Vu Method?" her eyes widen and she goes "nope nope nope not this shit again" and she walks out of the room. Here's the thing, though: I'd shown her Dr. Daley's Last Trick just a few days prior, using the exact same handling. And yet DVM was unrecognizable to her as being a card trick, much less the same card trick. I've since performed it for two other friends of mine, and they each had the same unsettled, what-the-hell-is-going-on sort of response. Being on the other end of this is apparently trippy as hell. 

That's been my experience with that trick as well. 

If you put it in a series of card tricks, it's going to seem like a card trick. But if you do it as a stand-alone effect it can feel like something different. It can feel like a strange experience.

This is true for a lot of the material I work on. And I think the first step towards accomplishing this is giving the trick some other relevance beyond "just a trick."

I watch magicians consistently fail at achieving that goal (giving a trick relevance) and now I'm going to point out how they screw it up and how you can do it the right way.

Let's just assume we're talking about card tricks for now. 

Now let's say we have a guy named Sam and Sam has a card trick where he and his spectator both deal through the cards and they end up stopping on "matching" cards (like the four of hearts and the four of diamonds). 

For a while, Sam performs this pretty straightforwardly, i.e. "Let's shuffle. Let's deal. Let's stop wherever we want. Look the cards match!"

It gets a good reaction, but he thinks it will get a better reaction if he makes it more relevant. So he starts of the trick by saying, "Do you believe in fate?" And then he does the trick and finishes it with, "It must be fate!"

Is Sam doing a trick about fate? No. Does this feel like an example of fate to the spectator? I can't imagine it would.

This is the point where I find many professional magicians stop when it comes to crafting a presentation. (Not all, but a lot of them.) And because amateurs are often inspired by the professionals, this is what a lot of their presentations look like too.

They'll start of with an interesting question:
"Have you ever been hypnotized?"
"Do you believe in coincidence?"
"Do you think time-travel is possible?"

Then they'll just do their normal trick.

Then, they'll bring it back to the interesting question at the end
"Well now you can say you have been hypnotized."
"I think we'll both believe in coincidence going forward."
"And thus I've shown time-travel is possible."

Their tricks amount to 2% interesting presentational concept and 98% standard card trick. 

In my opinion, this is a tremendously misguided way to present a trick for the amateur. I think you'd be much better off just saying, "Hey, can I show you a card trick I'm working on?" And leave it at that. 

If you're going to bring up some kind of intriguing concept as the backdrop for your effect, you can't just pay lip-service to it. Spectators aren't so dumb that they can't see through this as your attempt to justify showing them a standard card trick. And if you have to justify showing them a card trick, then they will (correctly) assume it's not really worth their time. 

Saying, "Do you believe in fate?" and following that with a regular card trick, is like saying, "You look tense, do you want a shoulder rub?" and then grinding your crotch against the person's hip. Your real motivation comes through quickly and clearly.

I'm not saying you shouldn't try to inject thought-provoking concepts into your presentation. My strongest tricks definitely have that element in them. I'm saying that if you're going to bother with that, you have to present it in a way the feels legitimate to them. You can't do the 2% concept/98% trick process that you see so often. 

What you need to do is flip that percentage. I think of this as creating greater presentational density. It should seem like 98% presentation and 2% trick. Does that mean if you have a 2 minute trick you should make it 100 minutes in order to create a greater presentational density? That's one way of doing things. But that's not what I'm recommending.

What I'm recommending is you take as much of the procedural elements of the trick and absorb them into the presentation. This is, essentially, what the Engagement Ceremony style is designed to do. Take process and make it presentation.

It may not seem like it, but I've found there's a significant difference between these:

1. "Do you believe in coincidence? Here, take this deck. Shuffle it. Now deal thru." Etc., etc.

2. "Do you believe in coincidence? I had a professor in college who was obsessed with the concept of coincidence and he had these little experimental routines he thought could induce them. Like if you did a certain set of pre-determined actions before you left your house you'd arrive at the bus-stop exactly when the bus arrived. Weird things like that. This is one of the tests he conducted that was designed to generate a coincidence. The first step is to take this deck and mix it up in any arrangement you like. This imprints a personal order on them." Etc., etc.

The second way may just feel like more detail, but really what it does is pull the procedure into the presentation. That's not to say they won't recognize what's happening as a trick, but it will have their mind more on presentation than process, which is what you want. (Or you should want that if you're trying to put forth an interesting presentation.)

Another way to increase presentational density is to add elements to the effect that aren't required by the method. For example, in The Deja Vu Method, mentioned above, there is a little ritual the spectator must follow that isn't needed methodologically but makes sense presentationally. An extreme example of this is the Multiple Universe Selection effect which is a bunch of presentation that is attached to just the changing of a playing card. That trick is probably 99.9% presentation and .1% trick and it's one of the strongest things I do.

The hope is, by utilizing these two techniques (adding presentational elements, and consuming methodological elements into the presentation) you will create an encounter where the only part that feels specifically like a "trick" is the climax of the effect. So it's 98% presentation and 2% trick and that 2% is the most exciting part of what magic can provide. 

When the interaction feels more about the presentation than the process of the trick, that's when it feels more like an "experience." Now, it may still be a dumb or dull experience if you don't craft it right, but that's within your control. If you have a an intriguing presentation, and if your procedural elements feel like part of that presentation, and if you end with a strong effect, there is a high probability that will come across as a positive, enjoyable experience to the people you perform for.