The Hyper-Critical Test Audience

On Monday I wrote that today's post would be dedicated to "a resource to help you identify and/or create much stronger material." 

I don't think this resource is something that everyone needs, but if you're someone who wants to put out your own material or wants to perform professionally or simply wants to perform unquestionably the strongest material you can, then it's something you should consider.

And that resource is finding a Hyper-Critical Test Audience.

Most often, when magicians are testing new routines, they will test them on other magicians or on a spouse or significant other who has seen a lot of their material.

As far as test audiences go, these groups are almost useless. They might be able to tell you if you're flashing or something like that, but you could use a video camera to tell you the same thing. It's nearly impossible for someone with any type of specialized knowledge to view something from the perspective of someone without that knowledge. With magicians, they will often not flag something as a weakness or as being suspicious because they assume they only noticed it because of their familiarity with the subject (and not because it is, in fact, obvious to anyone watching).

For example, let's say you have a double-lift that's not great. A total layperson might say you're doing something weird when you pick up the card, and you know that's something you need to work on. But another magician will often see the double and just assume he recognizes it because of his background in magic, and will assume that a layperson would never see it.

I have an elementary school friend who went into CGI special effects later in life and he says that while they may look to another effects artist for a quick assessment of something, when they want some real feedback on how good something does or doesn't look, they bring in someone from outside that division altogether. The UPS guy can give better feedback in some respects than the head designer. It's not that other CGI artists are too critical, they're too dismissive—often assuming that they only notice something because of their trained eye.

Magic is, of course, just another type of special effect. 

Friends and loved ones—once they've seen a lot of magic—are pretty much just as useless as far as feedback goes. The knowledge they gain over time ends up distorting their ability to give a genuine reaction and that's further complicated by the fact they (hopefully) like you. And you don't want their personal feelings affecting the nuts and bolts of determining the strength of a routine.

Finding a Hyper-Critical Test Audience

This is harder than you'd imagine. Generally people want to be nice to performers.

Many years ago, when I first got involved with the focus-group style testing of magic tricks in NYC, it was something a few friends and I were doing just out of curiosity and to settle some bets. And when we brought our first groups of people in we were kind of astounded at how clueless they were about certain effects. They really have no idea how that bill is floating? Then someone suggested giving them a small bonus to offer a potential solution, and all of a sudden everyone knew the bill was suspended from something that just wasn't visible from their position.

We had brought these people in and told them they were getting paid for their feedback, and still they were reluctant to offer the solution that was in their mind until we made it very clear that's exactly what we wanted from them.

Testing things on a large group is expensive, but for most purposes, you just need to get something in front of a couple of people to spot any potential weaknesses.

Here is what I do.

1. I put an ad on the "gigs" section of craigslist indicating that I'm looking for people to provide feedback on a creative project I'm involved in. I make it clear that it requires no special knowledge (but I also usually say I'm looking for college graduates). I say we'll meet in a public place (usually a cafe or a library) for about an hour and they'll be paid $40 for their time. I don't mention magic at this point.

2. When we meet up I indicate that I'm working on a project with a magician (or a magic company of some sort) and that we're in the early stages and we're looking to get people's unadulterated opinions on some effects. The reason I say we're in the "early stages" and that it's part of "someone else's" project is because I want them to not be at all concerned about my ego.

3. Then I show them tricks. You can easily get through 30 or 40 in an hour if you cruise through them. But I go pretty slow and usually get to about 10 or 12. After each trick I try and get them to offer some ideas in regards to how the trick was accomplished. I make it clear that this is what they're there for. And that they shouldn't hold back from mentioning anything they noticed or thought was suspicious. 

4. This is important: You want as little presentation as possible. The purpose of this is to test the strength of the method. It's too easy to win people over with a charming presentation and a not so great trick. Or to earn their sympathy with an overly-earnest presentation. You don't want that. We're looking for one thing from them—an honest assessment of how fooling the method is.

Magician's notoriously despise honest feedback. When practicing the pass in a mirror, they'll blink at the critical moment. That's how delicate they are. They don't even want an honest assessment from themselves.

But I think you'll find that when you seek out and pay money for a hyper-critical test audience, you don't have any of those hang ups. You'll quickly learn to want this person to be as honest and critical as possible because that feedback is so valuable. Sometimes there's no real way do address the issues they notice, but more often than not there is. And once you send a trick through this testing a couple times—and address the potential concerns that are brought up—you go from this flabby, rough effect to a tight, impenetrable mystery.

I've said in the past on this site that I want to train my audience to the point where they're willing to play along with me. But I mean this in the sense that I want them to play along with the presentation. When it comes to the method, I want them to feel like they can be as engaged and critical and "defensive" as they want to be.

There is nothing so detrimental to the impact of an effect than when the spectator feels they have to go along with some questionable aspect of the method. (This is why I suggested in Monday's post that propless mentalism sometimes gets a lesser reaction than you might expect; because with many propless effects the spectator often has to "play along" with the method, not just the presentation.)

If you use testing to identify a truly rock-solid, unassailable method and then you build that up with a really interesting or fun presentation, that will give you the most satisfying experience for you and your audience. I love watching someone smiling and laughing at the conclusion of an effect (because they were taken with the presentation and the clever way it concluded) and then you see their mind working and their face scrunches up and they're like, "Wait... that's fucking impossible." And you can tell the more they think about, the harder it's hitting them. It doesn't let up. (Contrast this with a trick like Kolossal Killer, which gets a strong initial reaction when they see their card come from the wallet, but as the spectator considers things it gets less and less impossible. "Well, I didn't see what else is in the wallet." "The message on the back wasn't really specific." "Maybe everyone says that card." etc.)

I'm definitely a presentation first sort of person. And I will even take a thrilling presentation over a fooling trick if those were my two options. But obviously having both is ideal. A hyper-critical audience allows you to refine your tricks until they have genuinely bulletproof structures. Then, over time, you can hone your presentation so it is equally as strong. That combination literally* kills people.

* not literally