Exposure is not good or bad. Exposure is a knife.
"You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you'll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you'll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart." - Huddie Ledbetter
You can expose an effect and ruin the magical moment you've created. Or you can use exposure in an artful way to create a more powerful magic experience for people.
I'm not defending people who just crudely expose tricks on youtube or in other forums. Nothing is gained by that. Wholesale exposure is not a good thing. But I do think you can let people in on some secrets in a way that makes them appreciate magic more and in a way that can lead to stronger magic moments.
Using Exposure to Capture Their Attention
Secrets are not the most important thing in magic. Yes, they're required (generally) for a successful magic trick, but that's like saying the film projector is the most important part of movie-making because you can't show a movie without it.
For a layperson though, secrets are the most immediately intriguing aspect of the art. Secrets are to laypeople what boobies are to a 13-year old boy.
So being willing to talk about secrets is an easy way to get people engaged in something they might otherwise not be. And once you’ve lured them in with some mild “exposure,” you can transition on to more interesting and more rewarding magical experiences.
[It should go without saying that when I talk about exposure, I’m not talking about exposing double lifts or rough and smooth. I’m talking about letting them in on tricks that don’t have a method that has significant broader magical uses.]
Using Exposure to Lower Expectations
This is an idea that you’ll find explored in the magic literature, but I think it’s something that can be used more frequently. It’s the idea of exposing things but doing it poorly so people’s understanding of the concept or technique is diminished in some way.
The classic example you’ll see is where the magician discusses palming cards and then does a really shitty palm with a stiff hand and part of the card peeking out. The hope here is that by “exposing” a bad palm then if someone sees your hand naturally curled with no part of a card poking out, they’ll assume you’re not palming a card (even if you are).
You can do this with lots of things. Bad coin vanishes. Bad bottom deals. Bad deck switches. Bad misdirection. Bad anything.
Now, of course, you don't want to introduce any new concepts to them. You don't want to be like, "Here's something called the gravity half pass," and then do it poorly.
What we're actually doing here is using exposure to poison the knowledge that they already have. For example, most adults have heard of the concept of marked cards, but most have never seen a marked deck. If you “expose” a marked deck to someone, and it’s the kind of marked deck that you have to really study the back of the card and do a bunch of mental calculations to determine what the card is, then you’ve helped establish in their mind what a marked deck is. So if, at a later time, you use a different marked deck (one that allows you to know the card’s identity with just a glimpse, perhaps from a few feet away) and you somehow know what card they picked without studying the back of the card, they’ll assume it wasn’t a marked deck.
In this way exposure can actually be used to make your magic stronger.
Using Exposure to Misdirect their Speculation
This is similar to the idea above, but here we’re going to expose a worse trick that’s similar in some way in order to get them thinking in a different direction on how a trick works and to emphasize the more impossible elements of the trick you don't expose.
I’ll give you an example.
About 6 years ago, Mickael Chatelain’s trick Ink came out. I bought it and performed it a number of times and always received a nice reaction. The version I performed was the one where you would draw one playing card on the outside of the box and it would visibly change to another playing card (the one the spectator picked).
Then one day I preceded this trick by exposing another “moving ink” effect, one I thought wasn’t great. It's also by Chatelain and it's called Numberground. It’s a trick where the 3 of diamonds drawn on the back of a card changes to the 5 of diamonds.
In the ad for this trick it says: Show him what you drew, and then determine this does not even remotely look like the chosen card. "Not even remotely"? I mean, it looks identical other than a slightly tilted line. When they ask the question, "What would you do if you had real magic powers?" This is literally the last thing on that list.
When I'd perform Numberground alone, it would get a laugh because it seems more like a joke than magic. Obviously you have a special card where one piece moves. This is reinforced when you put it in your pocket and run away after you perform the trick. So this was a case where I thought the gimmick was much more interesting than the trick. And I would expose the gimmick and say it was the first trick I made when I was a kid or something. (It has that sort of look/feel to it.) I’d let them play with it a bit and then tell them I had been refining it for a few years now and I’d show them my newest version and I’d perform Ink for them.
With the exposure of Numberground, I had conditioned them to expect a very simple animation of something that wasn’t really a drawn line of marker. But what they get is a much more intricate animation of something that can then be wiped off at the end, “proving” that what they saw was just a real time animation of dry erase marker.
The reactions I got to Ink when prefaced with the exposure of the other trick were significantly stronger because I had set a baseline with that effect. Showing them how the first trick worked magnified the impossibility of the second.
Using Exposure to Demystify and Remystify
I think needlessly exposing tricks comes across as sort of pathetic, even to the average layperson.
But when discussing a method in the course of a genuine conversation it can be a very humanizing thing. And this is helpful when transitioning into other effects, especially in a social magic setting. You're not some weirdo who thinks he's a wizard or a psychic. You're someone who's willing to talk about magic as they know it to be. That is, you're talking about tricks with concrete methods that someone with an interest in magic can learn. You're demystifying it.
Now, in and of itself, that's not a particularly worthwhile goal. But I've found that by demystifying it you can get people to be less wary and more accepting of the magic. They let their guard down. So later when you remystify what you're showing them, it hits much harder because their defenses aren't up.
For example... If my first introduction to magic with people is me saying, "I have a bell that rings when a ghost is in the area," they're going to write that off as total nonsense and they may write me off as a corny dork. But if I introduce magic to people with an effect or two in the Peek Backstage style, and then maybe teach them a trick. And then I say, "It's a fun hobby. You meet a lot of... interesting people and see a lot of weird things. Especially when you get deep into it. You want to see something crazy I bought at this gathering of magicians I was at a few weeks ago? It's this bell...." And then I show them this bell I got that supposedly rings when this incantation is said and a spirit enters the room. Well, then I've caught them with their guard down. We were just talking about magic in a very sober, down-to-earth way and now the exact nature of this bell is much more questionable and the mystery much deeper. This is a technique I call demystifying and remystifying and it's very strong. Instead of introducing something weird up front, make people comfortable by letting them feel they have a grasp on what’s going on.
In this instance, exposure is a helpful tool in creating a feeling of normality before ramping up to something truly weird.
But why can't we just keep the old rules? Never expose tricks.
It's important to recognize that this isn't 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago. If someone wants to know how a trick is done, they can figure it out in 2 minutes on a device that's in their pocket. It takes almost no effort. One of the ways to combat that is just to have more engrossing presentations that take the emphasis off of you and off of how the trick was done. You can defuse probably 70-80% of the "how'd you do that" response from people. But no matter how hard you try, you’re always going to have people who want to know more about the methods in magic.
What I’ve found is that if I play the role of someone they can come to with this curiosity, then I can sort of guide their exposure to... well, exposure. And then I can use it to my own end—to make magic potentially even more powerful. I’m like the “cool parent.” “If you’re going to drink, I want you to do it in my house where I can keep watch.” “If you’re going to try to find out magic secrets, do it with me where I can keep an eye on you.”
If you avoid the issue entirely, people will just search out methods online (if they’re inclined to). Whereas if you position yourself as someone willing to “expose” on some level, you can actually reshape their understanding of magic secrets, and present something much richer than what they can find on youtube. “Oh sure, you can learn some tricks online. But that’s just the sort of thing you would find in library books and on cereal boxes. The real stuff is only taught person to person after you’ve paid your dues. Fortunately, I’ve paid my dues, and I’m willing to show you some of the stranger stuff….” And you weave a tale from there, mixing fact and fiction, exposing and astounding along the way.