Universal Presentations

What would you say if I told you the best presentation for the effect you're working on isn't one that was specifically written for that effect?

You'd probably say, "Huh... okay... I guess that's possible."

Okay, so maybe this isn't the most earth-shattering revelation you've heard in your life, but I do think it's a bit counterintuitive. Before I ever gave these things much thought I probably would have imagined the best presentation for an effect would be one that was unique to that effect. Certainly the best love letter would be one written specifically for the person you're giving the letter to, yes? So wouldn't the best presentation be written specifically for that trick?

I don't think so. (And, in fact, maybe the love letter thing is wrong too.)

I want to talk about the subject of Universal Presentations. I'm capitalizing that because it's a concept I'm trying to establish here. (This is the curse of being modern magic's most influential thought-leader. I have to establish these concepts before I can talk about them. "Uhm... Andy, if you just read a magic theory book you'd realize these concepts are already established." Hmm... maybe so. But that would require me reading one of those boring books on magic theory and I value my time so that will never happen. Checkmate, ding-dong.)

It's a little difficult because we sometimes use different words to address similar concepts, or the same words to refer to different concepts. We will use "patter" and "presentation" interchangeably. But then we sometimes use "presentation" in a broader way as well. And it doesn't help that I'm making up my own concepts like "performance styles" and "universal presentations." 

But so we're all on the same page, here is how I'm differentiating these things:

The Three Layers of Presentation

Trick-specific Presentations (or Patter): This is your script. The words you say for a specific trick. "While traveling through darkest Africa, I came upon a mysterious sponge ball." 

Universal Presentations: These are broader conceptual ideas, and presentations that can be used for many tricks, not just one. A better term might be "Generic Presentations," but that doesn't sound as nice.

Performance Styles: An over-arching setting in which your magic presentations exist. With "The Wonder-Room" Style, for example, you are a collector of interesting artifacts that are on display in your home. You can go on to pull out some quarters and do a trick at a bar, but it won't exist in that style.

There is some overlap between universal presentations and performance styles; the lines are a little fuzzy and will vary from person to person. The distinction I make is that a performance style is a little world you create which all your effects could live in (I believe in having more than one style, but you could limit yourself to only one). A universal presentation is something that can be used for multiple effects, but would be odd to do so for all your effects.

Here's an example: "I want to try a test of your memory," is a universal presentation, because it can be used for a lot of effects. But you would probably never limit yourself to that presentation for all your tricks, so it wouldn't really be a performancel style.

The Peek Backstage style, is both a universal presentation and a performance style, because "Can I show you something I'm working on?" is both a context the trick exists in, and it's a broad presentation as well. 

The Romantic Adventure of the Distracted Artist are performance styles, but not universal presentations because they're a framework of how you perform, but don't suggest what you would say/do for a given effect.

This is all getting too clusterfucky. I think I'm going to write up a glossary for this site soon.

My point in this post is that I think people who care about their magic often spend a lot of energy on trick-specific presentation and patter and it's not a very good investment of time. Once you've established the performance styles that appeal to you, then your time should be spent identifying good universal presentations. Trick-specific presentations are almost unnecessary for the amateur performer. 

Here's an example. This is our friend, Madison Hagler, performing Tenyo's Tower of Dice with a very trick-specific presentation.

Is that a good presentation? I don't know. I'm not even sure I understand it. I don't think it's the type of thing that Madison would be like, "Ah! This is my finest writing of all time!" I just think he was trying to come up with something to say beyond, "Here are four dice. Now there are eight dice." And it's a completely different thing to come up with a patter to deliver as a soliloquy to a camera, then it is to come up with the words you say when presenting something to another human in the real world.

And that's kind of the problem, isn't it? So often people come up with a patter/presentation that could be delivered to a camera just as easily as it could to a human. That's not a good sign. I mean it's not a good sign for an art whose strength lies in its interactivity and the experiential nature of witnessing it live

Let's look at that Tower of Dice trick and forget the idea of a trick-specific presentation for it. What might be a better universal/generic presentation for it? Well, I think the one I mentioned above works perfectly with it: A Memory Test. You have a stack of dice that you're covering up for some reason, and there's the reason, to test someone's memory. That's the "universal presentation." You could give this a context. You could say this is part of the general test for intelligence that was the precursor to the IQ test (Now you've put a "universal presentation" (memory test) into a "performance style" (the Engagement Ceremony)).

Stack up the four dice.

"All you need to do is pay attention to the numbers that face you on the stack."

You cover them up with the box. 

"What was the number on the bottom of the stack?"


"Good. And what was the total of the numbers that faced you?"

"Uhm.... fifteen."

"Try again."

"Uh... let's see. 6, 3, 2, 4. So... yeah... 15."

"I'll give you another peek," you say and lift the cover again, then cover them back up.

"Yeah," he says, "it's fifteen."

"Well wait... you already said the bottom four were 6, 3, 2, and 4. That's fifteen in itself. What were the rest, just blank or something?"

"The rest?"

"Wait... how many dice do you remember being under here?"


"Oh dear, you really failed the memory test. There are 8."

Lift the cover.

You see? It's like a tennis match that goes back and forth. This type of thing is considerably more fun and interesting for people than a lecture or a story accompanied by a magic trick. 

And there's zero need for any trick-specific presentation or patter. You don't need to "script" anything because what you say is built into the universal presentation you're using. As long as you can carry on a normal you're all set because the interesting part is established in the performance style and the universal presentation.

Yeah, but I cant carry on a normal conversation. That's why I got into magic. 

I promise you, you can do it. At the very least you will look no less awkward stumbling through a genuine interaction than you do reciting a script in someone's living room with a bunch of pre-written jokes and bits of business. 

But isn't scripting important?

For a "performance," yes. For casual situations, no. In fact it's detrimental. There's really no interpersonal situation where coming off scripted is a good thing.

Ah, but what about something like this. You tell the story of the kid in your neighborhood who could stop time. That's one long script.

No. You're confused. That's one long transcript. That's the interaction that took place and I wrote it up after the fact, as best as I could remember itI didn't go into the interaction with that all written out. 

Going into the effect I just knew I wanted to tell the story about a weird kid in my neighborhood who learned to stop time. Then there were two or three other beats or pieces of information I knew I wanted to hit. I knew I wanted to mention a specific book on mass hysteria to give it all some credence. And I knew I wanted to have this line:

"But I said there were two reasons I know this isn't just some misremembered moment from my youth. And the second reason is this... I can do it now too."

I wanted that moment where this story jumps from the past to the present.

In fact, the Donny Ackerman script is really a universal presentation. It's a universal presentation about stopping time that could be applied to 100s of tricks. And beyond that universal presentation it was just a matter of improvising a story that was heavily based on a real kid I grew up with.

Yeah, but I can't just improvise stories like that. 

Okay, that's fine. But your options aren't just A) improvise some elaborate story or B) memorize some elaborate script. This is where Universal Presentations come in. Because they do the hard work for you. For a presentation to be applicable to a wide range of effects, there must be some kind of general appeal to it. That's what you want because it will mean people will be able to buy into the presentation with little effort. 

Look at all the hard work Madison has to do just to establish and execute the premise in the dice trick. He talks about the phrase "Rome wasn't built in a day" and what that means, and then he has to suggest these dice are a demonstration of building something, and then he has to establish the idea of the value of things that come together immediately, and he's bringing up the big bang, and then finally the climax of the trick comes. And in the end you're probably lucky if your spectator feels, "Ah, that was all worth it."

But with a Universal Presentation you can just say, "I want to test your memory," or, "I received this trick in the mail from a crazy Japanese magic inventor. Let's try it out." or, "I have this trick that I've been working on for like six months and I think I'm finally getting it. Would you take a look and see if it looks good from an external perspective?"  In a sentence or two people completely get it. And any trick-specific patter will naturally arise from the universal presentation.

I still don't get how coming up with a really clever presentation that is only applicable to a specific trick can be a bad thing.

Here's how it is... As I've said before, in casual circumstances, magic works best when it is a demonstration of some larger concept. That larger concept is your universal presentation (time travel, esp, aliens, hypnotism). If your trick only has a trick-specific presentation and no universal presentation then it is, at best, representative of a larger concept. But people don't get excited about symbols and parables. They want the feeling of something real.

Always strive towards demonstrations over representations. In my experience people would much rather see a "genuine" demonstration of this weird thing you found that teleports an object to the other side of the room than a trick where the coins represent Spock and Captain Kirk and they go into this hand and they come out the other hand as if they've been through a teleporter.

Trick-specific presentations bring the focus to the hands and the sleights and the props. On the other hand, a universal presentation—because it can be used for multiple effects—by definition has to be about something greater than these things on the table in front of us.

I'll leave you with a couple ideas for universal presentations that friend-of-the-site, Tim Gaffney, suggested to me in a recent email.

The Start-Up Presentation

Tim writes: 

I use this a lot - especially with magic apps or other gadget magic.

"Have you seen this? A friend of mine up in Silicon Valley is at a start up with this cool stuff...He asked me to try it out - show it around...see if I can get some early stage investors…"

I use something similar fairly often. Specifically with Michael Weber's Charge Card effect and the app Marc Kerstein designed to go with it. (I don't know if Weber's effect is available anywhere.) Essentially it's a plastic card the size of a credit card that you drop on your phone and a green light on the cards slides down as your phone absorbs the energy stored in the card into your phone's battery (the percent on your phone's battery increases as this happens). 

I carry this with me everywhere. Here's proof. (I'm on an Amtrak train as I write this.)

If I'm sitting next to someone on a plane or in a bar and I know I'll never see them again, I'll tell them about how I invented this cordless way to recharge your phone's battery in an emergency that you can just keep in your wallet. And I tell them how Apple and Samsung and the other big cell phone manufacturer's are blocking it from being released. "The best part is, to recharge the card you just place it on your microwave or refrigerator at night and it will absorb the excess energy coming from those devices." That's the part people really like. It's so simple!

The only problem is that no one has ever thought this was a trick. They all think it's 100% legit. I'm not even sure how I would play it off as a trick. And while I normally don't like taking credit for things that do seem like tricks, in this case I figure it gives them a better story. "I ran into this guy who invented the most useful thing...."

The Job Interview Questions at Google Presentation

Tim writes:

I uses this for anything that is a puzzle effect, a brain teaser effect, a Q& A effect, etc.

Most have heard the stories about the weird questions and the weird stuff you have to
do when you are a genius interviewing for a job at Google.
If not, it makes for interesting

I think this is a great way to get into any puzzle type of effect, or a trick that is designed to seem like a puzzle. 

Here's how I'll use it. I'll talk about how I was interviewing for some consulting project. Maybe at Google or maybe at some un-named mystery company. Then I'll go through some of the weird questions they asked me and how I answered them. And I'll end by saying, "And then they showed me this," and I'll demonstrate some trick for them. Maybe something like this. It doesn't really matter what the trick is. (See? That's how universal presentations work. It doesn't matter what the trick is.) I'll say they let me have it for a few weeks and they want me to report back with my guess as to how it works.

And then just to add some intrigue I'll end with this.

"The weird thing is, they're calling me every couple days to see if I've made any progress on figuring it out. And I'm just like, 'Dude, if you want to hire me, hire me. Is this little puzzle thing that important?' But I think I had things backwards. I thought they were giving me this as a challenge to see if I could come up with the solution. But I'm beginning to think this is a little stranger than that. I'm beginning to think they don't know how it works either. And they're bringing people in who they've heard have a knack for this sort of thing and they're hoping one of us can explain it to them. But if that's the case, where did this thing come from?"