I had a little “A-Ha” moment while on break this past week.
Before I get to that, let me start this post with a conversation I’ve had with a number of women throughout my life. The conversation is the same, but it might start from one of two parallel paths. It’s me discussing one of my favorite past-times and the woman responding by saying one of these two things…
“I don’t like magic.”
“I don’t like (receiving) oral sex.”
In both cases, I give a little smile and nod. “Sure,” I say.
“You don’t believe me?” she asks.
“Uhm… no, I believe you. I mean, I believe you think you don’t like it.”
“Oh, so I don’t know what I like?” she says.
“It’s not that,” I say, “I just get the sense that you haven’t experienced it from someone who knows what they’re doing. So your judgment is based on unsatisfying experiences. But I wouldn’t write it off all together if I were you.”
“Ah… I see, and let me guess…you’re the person who is going to change my mind about this?” she says, skeptically.
I stare her in the eyes. “Yes.”
I give it a beat. “I mean, if you give me the opportunity.”
Then, if she’s into the idea, we follow one of those parallel paths. Both which generally end with her screaming, “Oh, my god!”
I met a girl named Jessica last summer. I mentioned my interest in magic. She told me she didn’t like magic. “Sure,” I said.
Whenever I get that response, I always ask them to break it down for me what they don’t like about magic. Often they can’t put it into words. They’ll say something like, “I just don’t like it.” I don’t mind this response. I relate to it. I don’t love watching most magicians either.
Jessica was one of those people who couldn’t put into words why she didn’t like magic.
Over the summer we became better friends and I showed her a few things in a social magic style and she absolutely loved them.
When I asked her what she like about the magic I was showing her, she couldn’t put that into words either. She would just give some unenlightening reply, “It’s fun. I don’t know. It’s just different.”
I tried to get her to give me something more helpful because I felt like if I could identify what specifically we can do to turn someone who doesn’t like magic into someone who does, then that would obviously be very valuable information. I must have asked Jessica three or four times about it because the turn around with her was dramatic. She went from saying she didn’t like magic at all to always pestering me to see more and more.
But she never really gave me anything solid to go on as far as what exactly caused the turn around.
Then this past week I got an email from her talking about a podcast she listened to.
“[Conan O’Brien] described them [“them” is SCTV, the Canadian sketch comedy program] as ‘the least needy comedy show’ he’d ever seen. I think there’s something about that in the magic that you and Mark [a friend who also does “social” magic] do. It feels very non-needy. It’s just fun.”
Her email made me think back to the magic I performed 10-15 years ago. In those days, my magic was more traditional in presentation. “Watch this amazing thing I can do,” more or less.
What I noticed back then was that, generally, people seemed to enjoy the tricks. But the tricks I had the most fun performing and seemed to lead to the best “vibe” in the group, were often tricks that were a 6 or 7 on the “impressive” scale. A really solid card trick, or something like that.
On the other hand, if I showed them something that was a 10 as far as how amazing it was, I might get an initial blown away response, but there would often be an awkward energy afterwards. One that didn’t mesh well with hanging out and having fun. And I think I would tell myself, “Oh, well they’re just freaked out by that incredible thing you just showed them.” But I don’t think that was the problem. Or, at least, I think it was only part of the problem.
I think I have a better understanding of the issue now, and I believe it’s this…
Magic, when it’s performed well, makes the magician look powerful. And also, magic, even when it’s performed well, makes the magician look needy.
These two things are not compatible. And some audience members are more uncomfortable with this incongruence than others, and they will be turned-off from magic altogether.
The more power you’re claiming to have, the more uncomfortable and awkward the “neediness” will feel in comparison to it. This is why a mediocre magician demonstrating sleight-of-hand will come off as a bit of a goofball, whereas a mediocre mentalist claiming actual powers will come across as weird or creepy.
It’s also why, when I was performing in the usual style, my tricks that were 6s and 7s on the impressive scale didn’t create the same uncomfortable energy the most powerful tricks would.
When I was performing a trick that was a “level 10” powerful, they were witnessing a great demonstration of power that wasn’t in harmony with someone seeking approval or attention which is how we typically come off when performing magic in the standard manner.
I believe, in a social setting, for your most impressive demonstrations to feel “right” to the spectators, you need to remove anything that comes across as needy, and that includes what we think of as the classic way to perform magic.
This is what I think Jessica was responding to. When the spectators don’t sense any “need” they can fully engage with even the strongest magic without having to wonder what the performer’s motivations may be.
Some will disagree with me that performing magic makes the magician look needy, but I think it’s almost inarguable. Magic, as it’s traditionally performed, is you demonstrating something the people you’re performing for can’t do. Asking people to watch you do something in a social situation that they can’t do is inherently needy. You want their response, their attention, their appreciation, their validation.
But no! I don’t want anything from them. I just want to entertain them.
That may be true (I kind of doubt it) but that’s not how it will come off to other people. Put yourself in the spectator’s shoes. Think of it this way… if you go see an NBA game and you watch guys dunk and perform incredible feats of human agility, you can see that as pure entertainment. Now imagine yourself at a party and some guy says, “Hey everyone, come out front, I’m going to dunk a basketball for you.” You may be wildly impressed by his skill, but you’re also going to think, “This guy is a little desperate.”
The entertainment comes from him doing something that you can’t do. But, as I said, “Hey, I want to show you something that you can’t do,” is a simultaneously powerful and needy concept.
The good news is, even though I hadn’t quite put it in these words, this whole site is filled with techniques to downplay or eliminate the “needy” element of magic, so you don’t create that awkward energy.
What is the Distracted Artist performance style? That’s dunking the basketball when you think no one is looking. That doesn’t come off as needy. That’s just cool.
What is the Peek Backstage performance style? That’s you saying, “Hey, would you mind coming outside and shooting something on my phone for a couple minutes? I’m trying to learn how to dunk, but I just can’t get it. I need to look at some video to see what my issue. is” Then they’re out there filming you and on the fifth or sixth attempt… you fucking do it! Oh my god! You can’t believe it. And they’re psyched too because they’re rooting for you. The neediness is gone.
Shifting the focus from the magician removes the neediness. The needy feeling is a byproduct of you asking them to watch you demonstrate your special ability. When your presentation shifts the focus from yourself, you’re undermining that feeling. It does not matter if they believe the presentation or not. You can tell them a believable lie that you want to show them an interesting psychological quirk of their mind, or you can tell them an obvious fiction about your invisible dog. Text will trump subtext. If your presentation is, “Check out what I can do,” (which is the standard presentation for traditional magic) that will reinforce the idea that you need validation. If you put the focus on anything else then you clearly are making the choice to not put it on your “abilities,” which is an obviously non-needy thing to do.
While this is something to keep in mind throughout your performances, I think it’s particularly important the first few times you perform for someone. Over time you will build a reputation with them and they’ll begin to understand your motivations and probably won’t sense a neediness in your performances if you haven’t demonstrated one in the past.
But at the same time, if early on you perform in a way that looks like you’re showing off, or trying to impress them, or looking for approval, or doing anything else that comes off as needy, it’s probably going to take a lot of work to get them to lose that impression of you.