My 2018 Focus

Happy New Year, everyone.

In 2017 I performed 2140 magic tricks (not different tricks, but 2140 total). Approximately 10% of those performances were me half-assedly muddling through new tricks for other magicians, but the other 90% were all actual performance for real people.

I kept track of every individual performance in a spreadsheet. I tracked the name of the trick, who I performed it for, about how long it took, their reaction (on a scale of 1-10), the presentation and/or style of presentation, and any memorable comments they made. The final thing I tracked was—if they mentioned the effect again—how long after the initial performance they mentioned it. 

When 2017 began I was thinking about my goals in performing and what ways there were to quantify my success with those goals.

My main goal, put as succinctly as possible, was to give people a magical experience that resonated with them. What do I mean by "magical experience"? Well, I don't know. It's hard to say because the nature of the phrase suggests that it's probably something not easily definable.

I can tell you what I didn't mean, though. I didn't mean that I just wanted to fool people. 

Real people don't use the phrase "that was magical" to mean "I was fooled." So I wanted to use it in the real person way. I wanted to fool them in service of an enchanting, other-worldly moment. 

Those types of moments aren't quantifiable, but you know them when you're experiencing them. 

But one thing I could track, to a certain extent, was resonance. When someone talks to me, or texts me, or calls me long after the trick and mentions it, I can make note of it. When 6 months after a performance someone tells me they had a dream about it, that can be seen as a data point. Even on a shorter time scale, if someone brings up a trick later that same night, that's obviously a more enduring trick for them than something they never think of or mention again.

And the idea behind tracking this was to identify what aspects of a trick might make that magic feeling linger. Would something visual endure more than something cerebral? Is something mildly magical that happens in their hands remembered longer than something incredibly magical that happens in mine? Or is it the other way around? Is a card trick more memorable than a coin trick? Or are they equally forgettable?

This is the type of stuff that fascinates me, and I feel I have no way of knowing without studying it.

The first pattern I saw emerge was that almost all memorable tricks were strong, but not all strong tricks were memorable. For example, doing a color change with a card can get a gasp or even a minor freakout, and might score an 8 on my subjective reaction scale. But I don't usually have people come up to me weeks later saying, "Hey, remember when you changed that card?" 

Now, you could say, "Well, just because they didn't mention it again doesn't mean they don't remember it." That's true. So, "memorable" is probably an inexact word. I should stick with resonant/enduring. 

So, what was the common thread that I found ran through lasting magical experiences? I'll get to that in a moment. It's going to be something I plan on focusing on in 2018. I want to take a bit of a detour first, because I feel like what I'm getting to is something that's often botched by magicians who consider themselves to be "thinkers" who are "pushing magic forward."

We all agree that a lot of magic can come across as meaningless. "Here are some coins. They change. Now they go to this hand. Now they disappear." It can be a cool thing to watch but it can often feel very inconsequential. Especially if you're performing for people who have seen other tricks from you before.

Many magicians recognize this and they think, "I don't want to do meaningless magic. I'm going to give my magic meaning!" Often though, the result of that effort is magic presentations that are much more awkward and off-putting than someone mumbling their way through a dull narration of which hand they're putting the coin in. Why is that?

Let's consider this question:

How do you give your magic meaning?

It's a trick question.

You can’t give your magic meaning. Meaning isn’t given, it’s taken.

The audience provides the meaning. 

What you can do is imbue your presentation with things they can take meaning from. But when you start giving them the meaning, that's when you turn people off. A poem, or a novel, or a movie that beats you over the head with what it's about is generally considered not great art. It's bad art in magic too. If you're like, "You were able to separate the reds cards from the black cards because you can do anything you set your mind to. You just need to have faith in yourself and you can achieve anything!" You're creating a situation where you're trying to force them to get some meaning from something.

(This sort of thing is particularly hideous because they know it's a trick. So you trying to use it as evidence of some positive attribute of theirs is sad and condescending. It would be like if you printed their picture on the cover of a Playboy magazine with "Playmate of the Year" on it and then tried to use that as evidence of how pretty they are when everyone involved knows its fake.)

The nice thing I've found is this: The elements that make a trick stick with people long-term are also the elements that make an effect fertile ground for a spectator to discover some meaning. These things are connected (unsurprisingly). 

When I looked at the effects I performed in 2017 that people continually brought up again and again over time, they weren't the most visual effects, they weren't the most interesting effects, they weren't the funniest effects, they weren't even the most surprising effects. 

The tricks that stayed with people were the ones with an interactive, present-tense narrative that engaged them emotionally.

Let me break that down as best I can.

Interactive: The person you're performing for is a part of what's unfolding. They're not just watching you do something.

Narrative: The most memorable tricks had an element of story to them. The least memorable didn't. Those types of tricks can still be impressive tricks. But they're demonstrations. Like watching a plate spinner. You probably don't fondly remember a plate spinner over and over throughout your life, because that demonstration isn't really connected to anything.

Present-tense: The "narrative" is happening in the moment. You're not telling a story about something symbolically with cards or coins. And you're not relating a story from your past. The story is unfolding in the moment. Let's break this down further:

  1. Symbolic story: "Once, in an old kingdom, there was the group of poor workers. They'll be represented by these low cards. They always dreamed of becoming rich and powerful so they could help those around them. One day they found a magic crystal and when they touched this magic crystal they turned into kings and queens."
  2. Relating a story from the past: "One time I was at this poker game at a bar I used to go to. I was losing a ton of money and this old bedraggled woman approached me during a bathroom break. She sold me this crystal for a dollar and said it would help me in the game. During my next hand I was dealt a 2 and a 7 offsuit. But I took my crystal and rubbed it against the cards like this and they changed to aces!"
  3. Present-tense: You're flicking a crystal around on the coffee table and your friend asks you what it is. "Oh, it's stupid. There was an ad for it in the back of a poker magazine I was reading. They sell all sorts of dumb 'lucky' items. I occasionally pick something up because I'm a little superstitious that way. This one actually came with instructions, which made me laugh. It would be like instructions for a lucky rabbit's foot or some shit. Let me see if I can find them. I might have thrown them out." Then you return with some instructions and follow them with your friend "just for a laugh" and in the process a bad hand changes to a good hand, or maybe whatever position on the table the spectator places the crystal is always dealt the best hand or something like that. 

It's the final part of that phrase, the part about "engaging them emotionally" that I think is the most interesting, the most complicated, and the part that I think is open to misinterpretation and abuse. 

Often when magicians try to inject emotion into their presentations they do so in a way that is very manipulative (invoking someone's dead relatives; or saying things like "this will work because you and I have a deep connection") or in a very grandiose "let's give our magic meaning" kind of way.

That's not the sort of thing I'm talking about. I just think there has to be some small emotional elements to an effect if you want it to be resonant.

I wouldn't have always thought this. For a long time I believed that what set magic apart from all the other arts was its ability to surprise. Therefore, what we should put our emphasis on, is the nature of that surprise.

But what I'm finding is that "surprise" isn't really a lasting emotion. It's not a sticky emotion. It's nature is fleeting. So, yes, there should be a surprise, but there should also be an emotional element to the presentation so that it sticks with people as time passes.

You might say, "Of course, there should be an emotional element to our magic. What's new or intriguing about that? People like Eugene Burger and Robert Neale preached that for decades."

Yeah.... that's not the sort of thing I'm talking about. Burger and Neale would put emotional elements into performances of magic in a highly theatrical way. You can see that in this performance of Neale's A Room for Death. That's an example of telling a story using the props as symbols. (And, to be honest, I think I must be too dumb to understand what that story means. So, Death comes and stays in your room and nothing at all changes the next day? Uh...what's the issue?)

I think that type of performance is fine for a theatrical show, but is awkward, at best, in a casual situation. Because...well...there's nothing casual about it. It comes off as a planned soliloquy because that's exactly what it is.

What I'm talking about is seeding your effects with narrative elements that have emotional content (those elements are what I mentioned above as being the things people can take meaning from) and then presenting the effect with the pacing and context of a genuine human interaction.

If this sounds unclear, it's because I'm unclear about it. This site was never meant to be me lecturing you because I know all the answers. It's about my journey working on these things and testing these ideas out. And I'm just saying that in 2018 I'm going to be thinking a lot about utilizing emotion in the presentation of magic. This is something I actually already feel I'm pretty good at, but it's not something I've thought much about directly, only tangentially.

Here's an example of the type of thing I'm talking about. It's a silly example but it will serve the purpose.

I performed the Bob Farmer "Little Hand" effect 13 times in 2017. This is a trick where a little doll's hand comes out from between your hands and grabs a coin.


It's the dumbest thing you'll ever do, but you'd be surprised how strongly people react to it. I'm not even sure if they see it as a trick or just a goof or what, but people genuinely flip out over it.

Now, seven of the times I performed the trick, I did so in a relatively quick, straightforward way. Similar to the way I've seen Michael Ammar perform the trick. Just like, "Hey, want to see how I make a coin disappear?" That sort of thing. Even with that little thought in presentation, people love it. But, only one time in those seven did someone mention the trick again after a few minutes had passed. 

In six of the 13 performance, I gave the trick a much longer build up. It would go something like this. I'm hanging out with someone and at some point I start poking my tongue around in my mouth a little, like I'm trying to dislodge a bit of food from a molar. Then I sort of lean in to my friend and say, "Did I ever tell you about Kip?" 

Then I launch into a story in a way that is so overly serious that it's obvious I'm goofing around, at least to the people who know me.

"When I was a kid I always had this lump in the roof of my mouth. And as I grew it got bigger but it never really got in the way of anything, so my parents and the dentist never really had me do anything about it. Then, about the time my wisdom teeth came in, this lump grew to the point where it was getting in the way of my eating and talking. So I went to an oral surgeon to get it examined and removed"

"I didn't know what it was. I thought maybe it was some kind of tumor or something. I had no clue. When I would poke the lump with my tongue I could feel, like... stuff in there."

I should stop at this point and say this isn't a great presentation if you're hoping to hook up with the person you're performing for. It's a little gross.

"So they completely numbed the roof of my mouth. And I remember watching as the dentist went into my mouth with scalpel. And even though I was numbed to the pain, I could still feel the sensation as he sliced the scalpel along the roof of my mouth."

Here I mime slowly dragging a scalpel. People shiver at the thought.

"And then he spread out the skin." Again, I continue to mime this. 

"And I could feel this...stuff fall into my mouth. You see... it was a tumor of a sort. It's a tumor called a teratoma. And it was made up of hair and teeth that had grown in me from a twin that I absorbed while I was in the womb."

Here I change tone dramatically from the hushed voice I've been using to relay this horror story to something really upbeat.

"So yeah, his name's Kip and he's just kind of floating around in me. He's actually a really cool guy. Real chill. You'd like him. He's a good dude. Collects coins. Loves the ladies."

Then I pause, and go back to a hushed tone.

"Do you want to meet him?" I say, with what I hope is an evil twinkle in my eye.

Forget that you know where this is going and put yourself in a layperson's shoes. What could possibly happen next? I love this moment.

When they say yes I go off to get a coin. "He collects coins. We might be able to lure him out with one."

I come back with the coin (and the gimmick) and then cup my hands and wait. I wait a good 20 or 30 seconds. The tension is ridiculous. 

Then I whisper to my friend. "Say something. If he knows a woman is out here he's more likely to show up. He's kind of a playboy. Just be like, 'Oh, gee, it sure would be nice if Kip showed up. Would be great to meet him.'" 

After a little cajoling she says the line. And we wait a little longer, staring at my hands. Finally, something starts coming out. She jumps. It's a little hand. It grabs the coin and scurries back from where it came.

The reaction is priceless. The build up of tension leading to that moment is just bonkers.

But there's more to it than that. I performed the trick that way six times in 2017 and in five of those cases, the person I performed it for brought the trick up again at a later point. Often many times: hours, days, weeks, and even months later. They would want me to do it for someone else or they'd just mention some aspect of the whole thing that stuck with them.

This version was significantly more resonant. And it's my belief that the resonance came from the fact that it was—as I mentioned above— an interactive present-tense narrative that engaged them emotionally.

Although there was a long backstory, the effect happened in the present moment and they were involved in that part of the story.

As for the emotional element, I think there's a lot there. There is, of course, the horror and disgust of the backstory. But also just the concept of, essentially, killing your sibling in the womb has some emotional weight, as does the idea that he lives within you still. Those things could be (and have been) the subject of novels and movies. And then there is the much greater tension and relief in this trick when performed this way.

This is what I mean by "seeding" your presentation with emotional elements. I don't know what exactly the person is going to latch onto, but I want to give them things the can latch onto besides, "I was fooled."

You might never perform this trick this way. It might just not be for you. But I wanted to give you a very explicit example of what I meant by inserting emotion into an effect. I would say a lot of the other stuff I'm working on in this regard is much more pleasant. 

Now you have a choice to make. You can click this link and go to the google image result for teratoma. Or you can live your life without ever making that mistake and you won't have to deal with that disgusting shit rattling around in your brain.

So yeah, that's going to be a big focus in my own experimentation in 2018: emotion. It's pretty much a natural outgrowth of stuff I've talked about on this site since the beginning. But now I plan to look at in a more structured way. We'll see where it leads.