My #1 Tip for Amateur Mentalism

As the world’s only professional amateur magician, I am also the only professional amateur mentalist. So while no one thinks of me as an authority on mentalism, I have performed a lot of it. And today I want to present what I think is the key to the most compelling amateur mentalism (regardless of what the actual effect may be).

You see, the problem is, many of the role-models in mentalism aren’t great entertainers. They’ll ask you to think about a time of day, they’ll furrow their brow, then they’ll write something on a pad, then they’ll ask you what time you were thinking of, then they’ll turn the pad around. Literally that’s all the thought they’ve put into presentation. And these are people with multi-volume L&L DVD sets.

In a way, the professional mentalist has it easy. If you roll into town and put on your mentalism show and successfully name what animal someone is thinking of, the spectator has to consider a few options. 1. It was a trick. 2. You really did it using some kind of supernatural abilities.  3. You really did it using your intelligence and powers of perception in a way that mimics psychic power.

This triune view in regards to the nature of the performance is baked into mentalism. You can deepen the mystery by being a competent performer, but even a moron with an invisible deck will have people weighing the options. 

But when an amateur performs a feat of mentalism for friends or family, the audience knows you can’t read minds, and they probably know you’re not so off-the-charts brilliant that you can use your vast intelligence to simulate mind-reading. So they don’t have to consider those possibilities. It just becomes a question of figuring out how you did it (rather than the more intriguing question of what was the nature of what just happened). In other words, they don’t have a lot to chew over in their mind other than what the method might be, which is generally not what we want our spectators to be ruminating on after we leave them.

So, does that mean all amateur mentalism is destined to just be a puzzle? No. I have the solution. 

The solution is to add more process to your mentalism. 

Think of last week’s post about naming the color of your spectator’s prom dress. 

If they write down “blue” and then you look at them for a moment and say, “Blue,” and raise an eyebrow like you’re Max Maven, they have two options. They can reassess everything they know about you and your mind powers or they can think “How did he see what I wrote?” And they’re going to do the latter.

For the amateur mentalist, mind-reading can’t come too easy. 

Let’s say you have them write down the color of their prom dress. Then you tell them that with enough other sensory stimuli you can sometimes pick up on details someone is just thinking of. Then you ask them if they remember a song they slow-danced to at their prom. Maybe they do or maybe you check out the music charts from the year they graduated and make an educated guess of a song that might have played. You ask how tall her date was and maybe you crouch a little or stand on your tip-toes to re-enact the height difference. You start to slow dance. After a couple moments you ask her if she thinks you two are moving about the same number of rotations-per-minute as she and her date were all those years ago. She says it was maybe a little slower. You ask her to really concentrate on being back in that moment, dancing, the song, and specifically the color of her dress. 

You look down at her and blink a little as if something is coming into focus. You let go and take a step back. Squint a little. “It’s uhm… it’s a blue dress. I mean… it was a blue dress, right?”

Here’s what happens with this style of amateur presentation.

The best case scenario is that you’ve given them more to consider about the nature of what just happened. Yes, they know you’re not someone who can just look into someone’s eyes and read their mind. But maybe you are someone who can—in a controlled setting with a lot of other sensory clues—pick up on someone’s thoughts (or read some physical clues that give you some insight or whatever).

That’s the best case scenario. That something that was “just a trick” becomes something less easily categorized and more resonant for the spectator. It happens more often that you might think.

But the thing is, even if that best case scenario doesn’t hit, even if they still see it as a “trick,” the experience of the trick is exceedingly more fun and engaging than you rubbing your temples and going, “It was blue!” 

Even if they know it’s all fiction, this fiction:

“I can read your mind by concentrating.”

Is significantly less interesting than this fiction:

“If we go on a little nostalgia trip and set up some things in the present day to put your mind back a couple decades, I can sometimes pluck a small detail from your memory.”

That is, of course, just one example. I’ve come up with a million of these little pre-effect encounters. They’re not hard to create. (I’m sure more will be on this site or in some future release.)

Coming up with an engaging procedure or technique or ritual that leads into the mentalism is a no-lose situation. At the very least it will make the effect more interesting. And ideally it will also make the whole experience a little more enigmatic and intriguing.

[While I haven’t done the prom dress trick above, a very similar effect is a staple of my impromptu repertoire. I ask my friend to think of a dance she went to as a teenager and remember a song she danced to. I have her dance with me to the song in her head. After a few seconds I stop her and say, “No, really do it for real. Really hear the song in your mind.” We start dancing again. This may be a slow dance or she may be swinging my arms around like a maniac. Either way is fun. I tell her I think I may know what it is. Maybe I’m way off. If I am, that will be funny. But I actually have a pretty good idea of what it might be. There was something very evocative in the energy she projected when we were dancing (or whatever). I borrow her phone and bring up a song on youtube and hand the phone back to her. I ask her what the song was. I tell her to raise the volume on her phone and she finds the song she named is the one I was playing on her phone. This is my presentation for Marc Kerstein’s Earworm. And it’s pretty fucking delightful.]