The Path to Emotional Engagement


Hey, I adore Sankey. The guy is probably the most prolific creator of practical, commercial magic in history (Sorry, ladies. Herstory.) But this is not a great example of emotional engagement. And the reason it's not is because there is no emotion involved in selecting one of 52 identical looking objects. 

In this post I wrote about the effects I performed in 2017 and said:

The tricks that stayed with people were the ones with an interactive, present-tense narrative that engaged them emotionally.

Performers who shy away from the idea of emotional engagement tend to view it as manipulative or overly-serious. They often assume it means dealing with genuine emotional issues directly in the presentation. That’s not what it means. It doesn’t mean doing Living and Dead tests or reading someone’s mind to name the person who first broke their heart. 

Attempting to engage people’s emotions by making your patter about inherently emotional subjects is like putting “Let’s Get It On” on your sex mix playlist. It’s corny, dude.

The idea of emotionally engaging magic is a complicated one. But don’t worry, I’m about to clear this shit all up for you, real easy like.

The first thing to understand is this: for something to be emotionally engaging, it does not have to be about their emotions. It just has to be relatable.

Magic has a relatability issue. Traditionally what the magician does is magical but meaningless, and he does it in a mysterious way that suggests he is almighty.

What he’s doing (linking rings, making balls vanish under cups, making bills go into lemons) is meaningless, and therefore unrelatable.

And how he’s doing it (with the snap of a finger and unknowable, god-like power) is also unrelatable. 

Both the "what" and the "how" are unrelatable. So magic itself seems unrelatable. And when people can’t relate to something, it’s hard for that to be emotionally engaging. So magic is pushed into the realm of juggling and plate-spinning. It’s more stunt than drama.

To change this, we need to make one of those elements (the what or the how) more relatable to create emotional engagement.

Historically, people have striven to better their magic by adjusting the what. “I’ll do something magical and meaningful in a mysterious, almighty way.” But that doesn’t work that great, because there aren’t a whole lot of meaningful magic tricks. If there were, we wouldn’t be linking rings, making balls vanish under cups, and making bills go into lemons.

Instead of trying to make the what relatable, it’s far easier to make the how (the manner you do it) relatable.

“I’ll do something magical and meaningless, but I'll do it in a human way.”

By “human” I mean that you’re not a god who is snapping his fingers. You’re someone who is learning, practicing, struggling and dealing with setbacks and successes. Now the how is relatable. They may not have ever learned magic, but as a general process they can still understand it. 

If I show you a Tenyo trick, and it’s a ball that penetrates into a sealed box, and I just do it with a snap, then there’s nothing for you to get invested in.

Instead, what if I pull the ball and box out of a padded envelope and set it up and nothing happens and I’m like, “Yup, that’s what I thought. [Sigh] I got ripped off on this thing. I paid $180 bucks for this because it’s supposed to be this classic trick but it doesn’t work at all. And the guy I bought it from on ebay won’t give me a refund because he swears its an original and not a fake and that it will just take some time for it to settle back into working order after the shipping. I’ve been trying it a couple of times a day for the past week but I haven’t had any luck.”

Well, you can relate to this, because you’ve wasted money or you’ve had a bad transaction online or you bought something that didn’t work. 

“Here’s what’s supposed to happen. I’m supposed to keep this box shut with rubber bands. Then cover it with a bandana like this. And place the ball on top.” Wait. “And what’s supposed to happen is that the ball will penetrate down into the-“ [CLUNK!]

Something happened! The shape of the ball is no longer visible underneath the cloth. I pull it away. The ball is in the sealed box. 

“Well… holy shit,” I say.

And look what happens… by making it not a trick that happens at the my whim, this amazing but meaningless moment (a ball going into a sealed box) now actually does have some meaning to it. The trick worked, it wasn’t a dud, it wasn’t a waste of money. The moment has weight beyond just the impossibility of it.

People don’t actually have to believe the narrative of the effect. They can understand it’s all fiction and still get caught up in it. A story doesn’t have to be true to engage the emotions. 

To summarize, the path to emotional engagement is this: First, recognize that emotional engagement is predicated on relatability. Second, instead of trying to make the "What" of the trick relatable, try to make the "How" of the trick relatable. Jacks turning into Aces is not going to be the sort of thing people are going to get emotionally invested in if it happens with the wave of your hand. But if you lay out a relatable path of how we got to the point where we are today with you about to change those jacks to aces, that can be the source of your emotional engagement.