Interaction Mathematics

I’ve always felt about magic the way that George Michael felt about sex in his 1987 hit, “I Want Your Sex.” (I’ve substituted “magic” for “sex” in the lyrics below.)

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There's things that you guess
And things that you know
There's boys you can trust
And girls that you don't
There's little things you hide
And little things that you show
Sometimes you think you're gonna get it
But you don't and that's just the way it goes

Okay, well not all the lyrics from the song apply…

It's natural
It's chemical (let's do it)
It's logical
Habitual (can we do it?)
It's sensual
But most of all
Magic is something that we should do
Magic is something for me and you

Again, I should have clarified at the start that it’s really just one part of the song that’s applicable.

Magic is natural, magic is good
Not everybody does it
But everybody should
Magic is natural, magic is fun
Magic is best when it's
one on one

Okay, there you go. That’s the spot. I guess it’s really just that one line, now that I think about it.

Magic is best when it’s one-on-one.

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Let me qualify that some.

I perform one-on-one probably about 50% of the time I perform.

However, if you asked me to make a list of the 100 strongest reactions I’ve ever received from magic, I would estimate that probably 95 of them would come from a one-on-one performance.

I think there are three primary reasons for this.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, you can really craft an effect/experience to a particular person when you’re performing one-on-one. There are a number of ways this can manifest itself.

  • You can work with their own interests to create a more immediately intriguing presentation.

  • You can capitalize on their particular blindspots to use methods you know they’d never conceive of.

  • Logistically you only have one set of eyes to concern yourself with in regards to angles.

  • 100% of the audience (One person) get’s the complete experience.  If you’re doing some mind-reading, for example, nobody is watching you read someone’s mind (which is almost always going to be a “lesser” experience than having their own mind read).

Second, when you’re a lone spectator, you don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks of your reaction.  You don’t have to think, “Should I play it cool? Will these other people think I’m dumb if I’m fooled by this?” I find that as long as someone trusts you, they’re more willing to become vulnerable to the experience when no one else is around.

The third reason I think you get powerful reactions in one-on-one situations is in regards to the math of social/amateur interactions.

If you agree that social magic is more powerful when it feels like an interaction rather than a performance or a show, then here’s how to think about the math of it all. If we sit down and have a conversation, we might have something like a 50/50 split in regards to our input into the interaction.

With a magic trick, you’re unlikely to get a real 50/50 split. You might be able to get close. For example, if you’re my spectator and I sit down with you and I’m like, “Check out this interesting [whatever] that I found.” We may be able to explore this object or game or fortune telling protocol or whatever in a way that feels close to 50/50.

But you don’t have to get to 50/50. Even if you have a trick that requires you to contribute 80% to the interaction and the spectator to contribute just 20%, that’s still pretty good. You’ve been involved in many legitimate interactions in your life where someone else is doing 80% of the work and you’ve still felt involved and like an important element to the interaction.

So any 80/20 split of involvement in the interaction is still fine for social magic, in a one-on-one situation.

But when the audience grows, your 80% doesn’t diminish. Instead, their 20% gets split up between all of them.  If you’re performing for 10 people, and they’re all equally involved in the interaction, then they’re contributing 2% each, compared to your 80%. So what felt like a 4:1 split to a spectator in a one-on-one performance, feels like a 40:1 split to that spectator in an an audience of ten.

And that’s how you take something that could be seen as an interaction, a conversation, or a shared experience between two people and turn it into a “performance” or a “demonstration” for a group. A performance or demonstration may still be very impressive and amazing, but it’s very difficult for it to capture people in the same way as an experience that makes them feel like they’re a critical element of the proceedings.

I occasionally get emails from professional magicians who are very complimentary about the site and they ask if I think there’s a way to incorporate the ideas from this site into a professional show. While I certainly think some of the tricks and concepts I talk about here would work fine in a proper show (and I know of people who do use them professionally), the “audience-centric” approach that works so well in amateur/social magic, is probably just not possible in a professional situation. You can have elements of it, but you can’t have it completely. Why not? Well, because the notion of magic as “an interaction, a conversation, or a shared experience” is accomplished, in part, by emphasizing your actual relationship with the person. “I’m your [friend/brother/lover/co-worker/seat partner on this bus trip] do you want to see something interesting?” That can feel like a real interaction, even if they know it’s a set-up for a trick. But if your only relationship to your spectators is a magician-to-audience relationship, you can’t really make that feel like anything other than a performance because “performance” is how the magician/audience relationship is defined.

This is another reason why performing one-on-one can be so powerful: you get to maintain the nature of your relationship with your spectator. If I’m showing a trick to my girlfriend, then she is experiencing me (her boyfriend) showing her a trick. If I’m showing a trick to ten people, one of whom is my girlfriend, then she is experiencing me as I would relate to ten people at a time. It’s just not the same level of connection.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy performing for groups of friends. I do. I’m just pointing out that the mathematics of the interaction allow for some very intimate and powerful performances in one-on-one situations.

I’ve had some people tell me they’re uncomfortable performing one-on-one. Perhaps part of the reason they got into magic was to hide themselves a little behind the role of the “performer.” That’s understandable. But if you can push past that, I recommend it, because the majority of the truly profound reactions I’ve had to my magic have been with one other person.

If you don’t know how to approach someone as an individual to see some magic, I recommend just saying this:

What's your definition of dirty baby?
What do you consider pornography?
Don't you know I love you till it hurts me baby?
Don't you think it's time you took part in a magic trick with me?

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