Did I ever talk about the time we did some testing with Anniversary Waltz in the focus groups? I really thought I had already written this post, but then, in the post I intended to write today, I wanted to reference this post, and I searched and searched, but this post didn’t exist. So now I have to write the dumb thing so I can reference it.
(I may have covered some of this before in some other place, but I don’t think so. This is the problem with writing 100s of blog posts, three books, 15 newsletters, and 12 issues of a magazine over the course of three years.)
Anniversary Waltz is a trick I like to throw in people’s faces a lot. I’ve mentioned it before when I talked about the testing we did on examinability (Part 1 and Part 2). Whenever someone suggests audiences don’t really want to examine magically altered objects, and if you just have some goddamned audience management skills, then you can get the audience to somehow just accept the object has been affected by real magic and move on, I like to bring up Anniversary Waltz. I’ll ask them if they give the card out when the trick is over. Yes. Well, why, if examination doesn’t add anything to the effect?
I’ve had a couple people say, “I don’t hand it out to be examined. I hand it out as a souvenir.” Oh… and they never examine it closely? They don’t hold it so they can eye the edge and see if it’s really one card? They’re just like, “Ah, nothing to see here. It’s as I always assumed… the power of our love can merge playing cards together.”
No. Of course they always want to examine the card because—again, of course—examining an object adds to the impossibility of the effect. The fact that this is even debated in our art is perhaps the dumbest thing about magic. And it’s probably the most damning evidence that a lot of delusional people who have zero idea of how normal people think are drawn to magic. You have to be a special sort of dummy to think: “If I’m a super-duper good magic boy, they’ll never question this deck that changed from red to blue to blank!”
Sure thing, buddy!
Anyway, that was a tangent.
The primary throughline of book two, Magic For Young Lovers, is that for a magic effect to really resonate long-term with people, it needs to have some emotional element to it. It doesn’t have to be something maudlin or dark, there just needs to be some little thing beyond the trick itself that the spectator can latch onto (this can be novelty, humor, romance, nostalgia, fear, love, etc.). Most of the effects in book two are designed to demonstrate this idea.
But people will kind of argue with me about this. Of course they’ll acknowledge that an emotionally engaging presentation is nice to have. But then they’ll pivot and say magic is really about the feeling of being fooled and surprised and that that’s where the focus needs to be. Some will even tell me that the types of presentations I’m championing take away from magic.
Here’s the thing, I agree that the fooling/impossible element of a trick is the unique thing that magic can provide, and it’s probably the primary aspect we should focus on when we start creating. But having a super-strong trick without some emotional element to it is like a having a super deadly toxic gas with no delivery system (if your goal is to kill people, I mean). The emotional element is what allows people to initially engage with the effect and the thing that makes it resonant long after the trick ends. And it’s the thing that makes a trick “magical.” I’ve said it before: People don't use the phrase "that was magical" to mean "I was fooled."
I wish we could hang out in real life so I could prove this to you. You would be so fucking frustrated with me. We’d go to a bar or cafe and you would show some people some hard-hitting trick—a 10 on the “fool them” scale—that you had spent 8 months perfecting and there would be this brief explosion of astonishment. And I’d be clapping and smiling with everyone. Then I’d be like, “That was amazing! Bravo. I wish I could do stuff like that. Hey… [in a low voice] do you guys want to see something really weird?” Then I’m off with our new friends, engaging in some eye-gazing procedure, or making an excursion to the park across the street because, “this really only works when your bare feet are in direct contact with the Earth’s surface electrons.” And I’m just putting a 1000 foot porch—an emotional element—on some piece of self-working junk I learned from the Klutz Book of Magic when I was 12. But it has them oohing and laughing and engaged and it takes 25 minutes and reverberates through the rest of the evening in fun little ways. [No, not everything I do connects with people this well all of the time. I’m trying to make a point.] And all night I’m smiling and waggling my eyebrows at you. “Isn’t this fun?” I seem to be saying. And when things are winding down, I’m exchanging numbers with the coolest girl in the group and saying, “Sure, yeah, I know a whole bunch of other stuff like that. I used to be into magic when I was kid, like him. [I point at you and smile. You shake your head like, “You little asshole.”] I kind of fell away from it, but I did spiral off from there into this whole other world of like weird people, and strange objects, and old rituals. I kind of collect them. It’s just silly stuff, really. But some of it I can’t quite explain. We should definitely get together soon. Having gotten a sense of your vibe… I think I have something you’d find really fascinating.” And you’re grumbling and thinking, I guarantee he’s going to show this bitch some Tenyo garbage with a 20 minute preamble. I promise you, I’ve annoyed too many of my much more talented magic friends in this manner.
[Ah… something funny just happened while I was writing that paragraph about what a little charmer I can be. Remind me to tell you if I don’t on Friday.]
Of course, I want to do the most hard-hitting magic I can. But I’d rather do a mediocre trick with some emotional element than a mindblower without one.
The trick fools them, but the emotional element charms them.
For anyone who still doesn’t believe, here is Exhibit A: Anniversary Waltz.
Would you perform Anniversary Waltz between two strangers with one writing an A on one card and the other writing a B on another? The effect is identical, two cards become one. We just strip every possible emotional element away from the trick.
Well, about five years ago we did that as part of our testing. We performed Anniversary Waltz as one of three tricks we performed for 12 groups of four people. Actually it was 12 groups of six people, but two of the people in the group were actor friends of mine who were in on it.
The effects were ranked on two criteria from 1 to 100. The first was how amazing/impossible the effect seemed. The other was how enjoyable/entertaining the effect was.
Six groups, twenty-four people, saw Anniversary Waltz performed the traditional way, to my friends who were posing as a recently married coupled, who just happened to be members of this focus group.
The other six groups saw it performed to the same two people, but this time they were acting as strangers. The effects were stripped of any bit of emotional resonance other than the magic moment itself. They didn’t write any words of love on the cards, they didn’t even write their names. It was just card A and card B.
You will not be the least bit surprised to hear that the scores for how enjoyable/entertaining that routine is jumped from the high 30s to the mid-80s when the routine involved a “couple.” An over 100% increase. And keep in mind, the people rating the effects didn’t know this couple. They were strangers. But still the version that engaged the emotions was that much stronger.
And you’ll say, “Well, yes, of course.” But here’s the thing, there’s nothing unique about the fusion of two cards that makes it susceptible to a presentation with an emotional element. So, theoretically, any trick you’re doing that is just about the moment of impossibility, could be made significantly more entertaining/enjoyable with a tweak to the presentation. Maybe it’s not always 100% more-so, but even if it’s 20% more entertaining, isn’t it worth it?
And here’s something else we found that you may find surprising. The score for how impossible/amazing the trick was also went up with the emotionally engaging presentation. Not as dramatically, but by about 25%. Why? I don’t know. Maybe the emotional element shut down some of the analytical thinking they were doing. Or maybe the emotional element engaged them more which made them feel more fooled at the conclusion. I don’t care too much what the reason is.
Yeah, that’s the UPDATES graphic from Unsolved Mysteries. Why isn’t that show on anymore? It was the best. It should just be constantly in production. What the hell? Did someone solve all the mysteries or something?
Anyway, here is the update to this post. Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense to “update” a post that I’m writing today. But, as I said, I thought I had written this a while ago.
So a friend of mine who also helps conduct the testing had an idea and did a little experiment of his own a couple weeks ago. He went through his email archives and found the email addresses of the participants who were involved in the testing mentioned above. He wrote them asking if they had any recollection of the tricks they saw that day. He was able to connect with 23 of the 48 people in the testing.
13 of those people saw the “non-emotional” version. Of those 13, one person directly referenced this effect. (Other’s simply referred generically to “card trick.”)
Of the 10 who saw the “emotional” version, five referenced a trick with a man and woman’s card “coming together,” “sticking together,” “becoming one,” or something along those lines. 50%! Even I was pretty amazed at that number. This testing took place five years ago, and they still remembered a trick that they weren’t even the primary spectators for. This wasn’t at a wedding. It wasn’t at a magic show they chose to go to. They didn’t even know what the focus group was for until they were there. Yes, it’s a very small sample size, but I was still impressed by the number.