Presentation vs Context: Clarification

A few people asked for clarification on the distinction between Presentation and Context. Part of the confusion might be baked into my terminology. The problem is I'm using those words to mean specific things, but they are also words that I have to use in a more general sense in my writing as well. Perhaps it's just a matter of capitalizing them when I'm talking about them in the specific sense that I'm using and not capitalizing them when I'm using them in the general sense of the word. I’ll give that a shot.

The concept I'm trying to capture is these three ways of presenting a trick.

1. You can do a trick with no story element at all. It's just a description of what they're seeing happen. "The card goes in the middle of the deck and now it's on top.”


2. You can dress up the trick a little with a story element that is put on top of the trick. Remember when you used to be able to buy "skins" for your iPod? That's kind-of how I think of Presentation. Ideally it adds something to trick, but it’s inessential.



3. You can place a trick in a different Context that is something other than a straight "magic performance." It's a story that's that's taking place here and now.

Here's an example of each with the same trick.

1. Unadorned effect: You place four jacks in four different parts of the deck, then deal them all off the top of the deck.

2. Same effect with a Presentation: This is one of the first tricks that ever blew my mind as a little kid. A friend of the family performed it for me. It's a classic. The four jacks are "bank robbers." The deck is the "bank." One thief goes in the back door, another the door on the left side, another the door on the right side, and the last goes in the front door. The cops show up and all the thieves run out the front door (top of the deck).

3. Same effect with a Context: You talk about some gambling techniques you've been working on and ask for their help to see if you're "flashing" at all. You take the four jacks and put one on the bottom, one 2/3rds of the way down, one 1/3rd of the way down, and one second from the top (in actuality, all jacks are now on top). You square the deck and talk a little about second dealing and bottom dealing and center dealing. "They're all really hard, but with practice you can learn any one of them. It’s all about finding the rhythm. The really hard thing is to do those sorts of false deals in succession—one after the other. Usually they require different grips. But that's what I've been practicing. It's hell on your wrist." You pick up the deck, breathe deep, and quickly deal off four cards. "Ah, shiiiiitttttttt!" you say, as you bend your wrist back and forth and clench and unclench your fingers. "I need to work on the hand strength. But did it look like they were coming off the top?" you ask as you flip over the jacks.

One way to identify Presentation vs. Context is that Presentations often are symbolic stories. "The jacks are bank robbers. The deck is a bank." Things are representing other things.

In a Context, things are what they are (for the most part).

In general, I prefer Context over Presentation. And that's because I find it easier to make a context somewhat engrossing. But this isn't intended to be a value judgment. My point in this series of posts is to identify the characteristics of Context vs. Presentation so you can manipulate them depending on what experience you're attempting to deliver.

(Personally, for the four jack trick, I'd be more likely to use the classic Presentation mentioned above than the Context I gave, because I don't generally use Contexts that are focused on my "incredible skill" (unless it's clearly ridiculous). So if I were to do this trick it would be with the bank robber presentation. But not for adults. It’s a trick I’d save for kids. I have better stuff for adults.)

So, going back to where I started this post, to help clarify this concept, this is really just an extension of something I’ve been discussing since the beginning of this site: the difference between the amateur style and the professional style.

If you want it to feel like a “performance,” then you will focus on Presentation and presentational elements: patter, scripted jokes, wardrobe, routining, etc. This is what a professional—or someone performing in a professional style—will do. If you’re putting on a performance you don’t need to worry about Context because you are already doing the trick in the context of a performance.

If you want it to feel like a social interaction, then you will focus on Context. Context is heavily affected by your relationship to the spectator(s) and where you are performing the trick. But ultimately Context is defined by Why you say you’re showing them the trick. A context is just a reason to show people a trick other than, “I’m trying to entertain you.” The context does not need to be believed or believable. You offering them an immersive fiction, not trying to play a practical joke on them.

I will put Presentation vs. Context in an analogy you will all understand: hiring a prostitute.

If you pay a meth-head $5 for a blowjob, that’s like a trick without presentation or context. It’s just the unadorned effect. You’re just trying to drain your nuts.

If you hire a $200 hooker off Craigslist and she shows up in a sexy outfit and teases you with a lap-dance first, then that’s like a trick with some presentation. Sure, the point is still to blow your load, but here she’s added some presentational/performance elements to it.

If you pay a woman $800 to act like your girlfriend for the evening, she may show up in her pajama bottoms and a hoodie and you may watch The Great British Bake Off for 2 hours. And then she may give you effectively the same BJ as you got for $5 from the meth-head, but here it’s in a girlfriend Context. In your head you know this isn’t “real,” but that doesn’t prevent it from potentially being a much more affecting experience due to the Context.

Finally, here are some of the other terms I considered using before settling on Presentation vs Context, which may give further insight in regards to how I’m using the those terms.

Trick-Focused Presentations vs Story-Focused Presentations

Too wordy.

Superficial Presentations vs Immersive Presentations

I didn't like what could be seen as an implied judgment in the word "superficial,” even though that’s not how I’d be using the word. I didn’t want to have to explain that each time.

Third-Person Presentations vs First-Person Presentations

I think this one has value as it focuses on the audience's role. Are they watching a story (Presentation/Performance), or are they part of the story (Context/Interaction).

Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Presentations

This was probably me trying to be too clever—playing off the concept of diegetic and non-diegetic sound in movies. Is the presentation part of the fictional world you're creating, or is it something added on top to emphasize certain elements of the trick?

I think most of you are probably pretty clear on the subject. If you’re not, you will be after I finish up this series.