When we conducted focus-group style research a few years ago (looking into audience reactions to magic effects and presentations) going through the results was always a positive experience. What I mean by that is, it was always good to have empirical data that supported some idea about performance that we had, and it was always good when the response to a performance would be something completely out of the blue and surprising. But the most interesting thing would be when the results of our research would present something counterintuitive to what we thought the response would be. We would then try and dig into those results and try and figure out why things played out the way they did.
I was reminded of one such counterintuitive result recently when I was flipping through my notebooks that I kept during these tests and I found this hastily scribbled phrase:
"car to tom."
The words seemed familiar to me, but at first I didn't remember exactly what it meant. After reading the surrounding notes it all came back to me.
I've often felt that an under-utilized presentational possibility for magicians is to talk in a meta sense about learning magic and the magic sub-culture. Laypeople really have no concept of magic lectures and conventions and the way magicians interact with each other or how one really learns magic. And a lot of magicians don't want to get into this because they'd prefer people believe they were just born with the ability to bend a spoon or whatever. If that's your schtick, that's fine. But I really want none of that. I don't even like claiming abilities I actually have, much less one I don't. I'd much prefer to paint a portrait of a world where I know other people who have put in the work to acquire some arcane skills, and other people who have put in work to accomplish things which mimic the supernatural, and other people who have shared with me some obscure rituals to make strange things happen. That, to me, is a story that's much more interesting.
To be clear, I don't think the way magic is actually taught and learned and shared is all that interesting. I would never bother describing to someone a real magic convention. But I do think the notion of one is an interesting thing and so unknown to the layperson that you can create a fiction of what these things are like that would absolutely capture their imagination. Amplify the elements of the magic world that deal with secrecy and mystery and then eliminate all the stuff about anti-social nerds smelling up a hotel conference room.
Returning to what I was talking about up top, during one of these focus-groups I decided I wanted to see how much better the response to a trick would be if it was performed with a "behind-the-scenes" style as opposed to just with a standard descriptive patter.
So we performed the same trick two ways for different groups of spectators. The trick was a strong, but perhaps dull, "magician fooler" type of card location effect. I don't remember exactly what effect it was.
In performance A the trick was done with no real presentation, just a description of the actions as they took place.
In performance B the trick was introduced with a patter line I've seen used quite frequently and one that I think usually generates some interest. And that is to talk about the concept of "magician foolers." To tell people that the greatest minds in magic will create effects that are designed to fool the other greatest minds in magic. And these people get together at magic conventions and stay up all night unleashing these effects on one another. And what you're about to see is an effect that has fooled every magician who has seen it.
Now, we had two ways we were quantifying the reactions to the effect. First, they were able to measure their interest in the effect as it occurred in real time via an app. Second, we had them rate their overall enjoyment of the effect on a scale of 1 to 10 after the trick was completed.
As you might guess, performance B generated significantly more interest from the spectators during the trick itself.
But the strange thing was, the average "overall enjoyment" score for performance B was about 25% less than the score given to performance A.
Why would this be? Two groups were shown the exact same effect. One group was much more interested in the performance but ended up rating the overall experience as less enjoyable.
It doesn't seem to make sense.
And then we asked the people who saw performance B about their experience and everything was cleared up.
The general reaction of the group can be summed up by one woman who said, "I liked the trick, but when you were telling us about it you were saying how this was a trick that fooled other magicians, so I thought it would be something crazy. I thought you were going to turn a car into a tomato or something." (Hence the note "car to tom.")
In that sense, it doesn't seem counterintuitive at all. Group A had no expectations and then saw an okay trick. Group B got drawn in by a story of an effect that fooled the best minds in magic... and then saw an okay trick. The thing is, laypeople don't have the knowledge to appreciate the distinctions in the conditions of effects that are "magician foolers" so for them you end up building up an effect that may be the dullest trick you perform all night. The trajectory of expectations is all wrong.
But here's the thing, I'm not saying you shouldn't use that presentation. As I said, people were intrigued by it. If I tell you that this is the cake that bakers try to impress other bakers with, or this is the joke that makes comedians laugh the most, or this is the fellatio technique male prostitutes use on each other, you're definitely going to think, "I want that piece of cake," or, "I want to hear that joke," or "I want that blowy." But if what follows that build-up doesn't live up to the hype, it tends to undermine the whole experience.
So definitely use the "magician foolers" presentation, but don't do it support a dull "magician fooler" trick. See it as a universal presentation that you can slap on to any strong trick you know that maybe you don't have a good presentation for. (Car to tomato, for example.)