This is something I’ve written about before in other posts, but I wanted to devote a post specifically to the subject because it’s something I see frequently. It’s a type of bad patter that I people use all the time. The following example comes from a new release by Cameron Francis called, Captivated.
“So I was having a chat with a magician friend of mine the other day. And I said, ‘You know what, I want do an effect that really captures my audience’s attention. Using just 8 cards: the four aces and the four kings.’”
And then he goes on to tell the story of a past performance of the trick to accompany himself performing that trick in the present.
Now, to be fair, most patter in online demos delivered to the camera is bad. It’s not really conducive to something more interesting. And I have no idea how Cameron would actually present this in real life. For a youtube demo, this patter is fine. But I have seen people perform almost identical patter to real humans in real life, and in that context it’s terrible.
One of the best things about close-up magic is the immediacy of it. It’s something that’s happening “in this place” and “at this moment.” Only magicians would think to screw this up by distancing the spectator from the effect. “Here’s something that once happened with me and some other guy I know.”
Here’s the thing, if you don’t think, “This ace will turn over. And now so will this one. And now they’ll turn to kings,” is an interesting enough thing to talk about in the present tense, then it’s certainly not interesting enough to tell a story about.
I know why people do it. It’s a defensive approach to showing magic. Instead of confidently suggesting you have something interesting to show them, you couch it in the presentation of “this thing that happened to you.” Sometimes it’s even further removed than that. Sometimes it’s, “this thing that happened to another guy once.”
“While he wasn’t looking I shuffled his deck face up into face down.”
“I was certain I put the card in the middle of the deck, but the next time I looked, it was back on top.”
“One time a gambler bet a magician a million dollars he couldn’t cut to four of a kind.”
The close cousin to the “here’s something that happened once,” style of patter is the, “magic trick as analogy” patter. This is where you tell a story and the coins or the cards represent something else. This is another case where you’re making it not about the present moment.
I’m speaking to the social/amateur magician here. Maybe Eugene Burger could get away with telling the Hindu creation story alongside his performance of Gypsy Thread, but in the real world when performing for friends, acquaintances, and family it’s a very alienating thing to do. Are you someone who would normally tell the Hindu creation story? Probably not. So it only comes off as a justification to show the trick. Which again suggests that the trick itself isn’t worth their time on its own.
In social magic, the presentation should ultimately be about the two (or more) of us in the room and the magic that is happening in that moment. It may sound like I’m advocating for breaking down the fourth wall in your presentations. I’m not. In social magic there is no fourth wall. Social magic is an interaction, not a show.
If you’re a social magician and you want to perform a trick like the one Cameron performs above (a longer, multi-phase card trick) then you would likely only show it to someone who likes you and who likes these sorts of tricks. (This is not the sort of thing you would spring on someone as a first trick when you meet them.) So if that’s true—if they like you and they like card tricks—then the only baseline patter you need is: “Hey, I’ve been working on something and I want to get your thoughts on it.” This Peek Backstage style is not only good because it’s simple and “honest.” It’s good because it focuses the magic on this present moment. “I want your feedback on this thing I’m showing you now,” is a normal human interaction that concentrates their attention on what’s happening now.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t strive for a presentation that is more compelling and interesting than that. I’m just saying that default presentation is good enough and it doesn’t make sense to replace it with something worse. Add a good story or add no story. And if you add a story it should be one that leads up and into the present moment. Not something like, “So this one time a guy took a card and it turned into another card and blah, blah, blah…”
Don’t add a dull story just so you can check the “presentation” box.
Here are some examples of other generic, present-tense presentations:
“Here’s this weird thing that happened to me once… and here’s how it affects me to this day.”
“There’s this old ritual I read about… let’s see if it works now.”
‘I found this strange object… let’s see what it does.”
‘I read about this psychological game… and I’ve been waiting to meet up with you so we could test it out.’
You see how each of these—even if there is a backstory to it—all play out in the present moment. The benefit of this is that it can seem like neither of us know for certain what’s going to happen next. And that should make for a more exciting effect, more-so than me just relating a story.
Ultimately this comes down to the professional/amateur divide. As a professional, it makes perfect sense that you would tell stories and illustrate them with magic. A professional magic show is not designed to feel like a normal human exchange. So heightening the theatricality is an understandable choice when performing a “show.”
The thing to understand about social magic is that' it’s not just an informal close-up show in a coffee shop. It’s designed to happen within an interaction. That’s its strength. And it’s the reason why a spectator can’t experience social magic while watching a video of it, because they’re removed from that incident. If your goal is to do an informal show in a coffee-shop, that’s fine, and you can just follow the precepts established for the professional magician. But if your goal is to create the unique experience of social magic, then any choice you make in presentation that takes away from the immediacy of the performance is a bad one.