In the focus group testing I helped conduct last month we took a look at three broad presentational frameworks for presenting a Tenyo trick and I found the results pretty interesting.
And before you write to tell me that you can't make any broad generalizations based on the feedback of a few dozen people, I already know that. There is nothing definitive about the results we got and our process didn't meet rigorous scientific standards, but I think there is still value in what we found.
[If you're interested in how the testing worked, we had three sessions with 12 people each. Each session lasted about 45 minutes. In those 45 minutes the groups watched five magic performances, each one from a different performer. Two were on video and three were in person. Three of the effects related to something specific we wanted to test and varied slightly from group to group. The other two effects were performed the same way for each group and served as something of a control so we could compare one group to another. After each effect the participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of the effect on a scale of 1-10. There was no discussion, they just watched and rated.
Each group consisted of both men and women with as much of a range in age, income, and ethnicity as we could find. They were paid $25 for their time.
The hardest thing I've found about these groups is getting people to relax and not be on alert the whole time. A lot of people seem to think this is part of some larger psychological test and it's not really about watching some magic tricks. This attitude can, obviously, get in the way of them just taking in the experience. So there is always a little lecture up top where we ask people just to chill out and enjoy the performances, but I still sense some people think that's part of the ruse.]
We presented the Tenyo effect Crystal Cleaver to each group.
For Group A the presentation was just a standard walkthrough of the actions of the trick. "I have a little illusion I'd like to show you. Can I borrow someone's ring? I'm going to place it in this box." Etc.
For Group B the presentation was, "I would like to show you all something very special to me. It's the first magic trick I ever learned. It came in a magic set I was given for my 8th birthday."
For Group C the presenter came in with a small box in his hands. The presentation was, "Hi everybody. This is going to be a little different. I've been asked to show you the item in this box. I actually don't know what it is myself, so this will be something of a surprise for all of us." He would then "perform" the effect by following the instructions written on cards.
The same person performed the effect each time. He is a theater actor in NYC and a very occasional amateur magician.
The only instructions the participants were given regarding the scoring system is that it's not like the grading system in high school where 70 (7) is average and 50 (5) would be a terrible score. Instead it's like a bell curve where 0 means they hated it, 10 means they loved it, and 5 is about average.
Here were the average scores for each presentation:
Group A (Standard magic presentation) - 5.2
Group B (My first magic trick) - 5.1
Group C (Mystery box/No traditional "magician") - 7.1
This is the type of stuff I find fascinating. The same effect getting a 40% higher "score" from people just based on it not being performed.
What I find interesting is, like many of you, I had originally thought the "this is my first trick" presentation for Tenyo-style effects was pretty good. But it actually received a slightly lower average score than just walking through the effect with a bland, standard presentation. I had come to the conclusion myself that the "first trick" presentation doesn't work as well as we'd hope, but I think I still expected it to do better than just describing the actions of the effect.
We didn't get a chance to break it down with the participants, and even if we did, I'm not sure they would know why this presentation didn't appeal to them. But I have a theory. From watching the performance I could tell people were interested in the idea of seeing his "very first magic trick." Who wouldn't be? People's first anything is usually an interesting or at least a cute concept. And, as magicians we think, "I've justified the prop! It looks like a toy, so I'm saying it's a toy." And that's true, but that's also only the beginning. You have to play out the whole thing. At the end of that presentation I think you have one of two scenarios. Either they believe you, in which case they're likely thinking, "I was just fooled by something an 8-year-old was performing from a magic set?" Or they don't believe you and that's much worse. That's like low-level emotional manipulation. "He pretended to share something emotionally relevant from his youth so he could show us some stupid trick."
That's not a great look.
You might think I'm taking it all too seriously, but imagine you were dating someone and they said, "I want to cook you something tonight. It's a traditional family recipe. And it's the first recipe my grandmother ever taught me when I was a little girl." And then sometime after dinner you find the recipe on the back of a soup can and they're like, "Oh yeah, I was just goofing around so you'd be into it." You'd think they were a psychopath.
On the other hand, I was gratified to see what I've noticed in my own performances echoed in this testing: The less you take responsibility for what is occurring, the more inherently interesting/entertaining a trick is likely to be. No, maybe not for professional magicians, who people are specifically going to in order to see magic. But in the amateur/casual magic scene that's definitely been my experience.
This goes for things beyond Tenyo tricks. In fact I think it's just the beginning of the development of a style of performance and interaction that may, one day, be quite common. A number of people have expressed an issue with this because it de-emphasizes the role of The Magician. And while I agree that's true I think it does so in favor of an increase in actual feelings of awe, surprise, wonder, etc.
More on this to come.