Sunday, October 24, 2010

5 More Ways You're Secretly Sabotaging Your Performance

5. The Wrong Audience
When you get right down to it, most people really have no idea who they're rehearsing for. They have no target in mind. Whether it be based on simple demographics or mutual interests. It's ridiculous, really. I have to hold the old guard magicians at least partly responsible on this one. They talk as much as anyone else about developing an individual style, but not many of them react positively to seeing younger magicians, no matter how talented, being topical or deviating from accepted norms.

And I also have to hold the new guard to task for this as well. David Blaine opened a lot of doors for magicians into the mainstream, but that doesn't mean that being fresh and topical is a license to perform to just anybody. Everyone can enjoy magic, but in the same way that anyone can enjoy movies. Not everyone is going to want to see a romantic comedy, nor is everyone going to want to see a horror movie. They have their own audiences.

By all means, experiment. But in the course of that experimentation, you need to find who consistently responds the best to your material and get yourself in front of them more often.

4. Too Much of a Good Thing
I'm going to get so much hate mail for this, but... Do you know what people think when someone like Uri Geller tries to move an object telekinetically, and it only moves just a little bit? They're thinking, "Wow, it really moved!"

Do you know what they're thinking when someone like Michael Ammar makes a small object float over a distance of several feet and even do some acrobatics? "Wow, that is really good thread he's using! I can't even see it!"

Just because you can doesn't mean you should. The audience isn't stupid and they can only suspend their disbelief so far before reality kicks in. Drama and uncertainty are much more powerful than just tooling around and showing off. Richard Osterlind says that magicians and mentalists should endeavor to be more like Tom Bombadil from "The Lord of the Rings" in that material objects are but playthings to god among men. To an extent I agree. Magic must be sublime to be effective. But there's no inherent drama in everything being effortless.

One of the things that made Geller a success was that he genuinely looked pleased every time something happened around him. If the spoon bent or the compass moved, he was bloody thrilled! For him to be so excited over such a small thing made it into a really big deal.

Try it yourself. Stop showing off and understate things. Don't give your audience too much of a good thing.

3. Wrong Hemisphere
Are you watching people's faces to gauge their thoughts during a performance? Do you think you can tell when people are lying by how their eyes move? You're kidding yourself. There's a reason the term poker face exists.

From early childhood, we're taught how to conceal our emotions on our faces. "Don't make that face, young man!" People's eyes generally don't move when they're lying because we're so damn good at it already. When a parent tells a child to look them in the eye and tell the truth, the kid's probably going to lie anyway. He just gets really good at making eye contact when lying.

So watching people's faces to properly gauge emotional reactions isn't as effective as you thought. What should you be looking at? Their legs. Not directly, of course. It's very awkward to be staring at someone's lower half and lamely comment, "Nice shoes," when they call you on it. But you should be peripherally aware of what their legs and feet are doing. The reason being that as our main source of locomotion, they naturally align themselves with where we want to be.

For example, people who want to invite others to conversation will face the person they're currently talking to at an angle, creating an opening as if asking someone to come and complete a triangle. On the other hand, if one of their feet is pointing away from the conversation like they were caught in mid-step, it means they want to get away.

Learn to recognize these signs and they will help you out significantly.

2. You Have No Personality
Irving Goffman wrote that people project a variety of different personas depending on context. Who we are in the privacy of our homes is rarely who we are in public, for example. Most people however are not aware of this. It's such a routine, familiar part of their life that they don't recognize it. And therein lies a problem.

Performers have to really sell themselves to an audience. They have to remember you. But all too often I hear young magicians who insist, "I'm just myself when I perform." Technically it's not a lie if you believe it. That still doesn't make it any less false. I say this because these kids unanimously describe themselves in the same, generic, utterly forgettable way. They describe themselves in a fashion that you'd expect from a con artist using the Fohrer effect to claim he's reading auras.

And that brings us to the heart of the issue. With no self-awareness or goals, these kids are simply using the Fohrer effect to describe how they imagine they're coming across. In reality, they're bland and samey. There's nothing to distinguish them from some other no-name schmuck.

In the previous article on this subject, I touched upon how most people don't get the reactions they want because they don't actually know what reactions they want to begin with. And joined at the hip is the problem that they're not projecting the demeanor or persona needed to foster those reactions.

1. Your Blood, Sweat and Tears Are Showing
Yes, I know you spent hours working on your double lift. Yes, I know it took you months of rehearsal before you felt ready to show David Roth's hanging coins to a live audience. Yes, I understand you want validation for those hours of work. But you're not going to get it.

People want to believe that the things we see are sublime. We're in awe of the natural world that never reveals its mysteries and workings to us. Seasons change, the sun gives life, wildfires destroy in minutes what took years to grow and build. That sense of awe never left us. And we want to capture some of the sublime for ourselves.

If you ever get the chance to, attend a Japanese tea ceremony. It's a testament to austerity and elegance. You need that in your performance. Talk less, don't explain things and let action imply power beneath the veneer of appearances.

That's not to say that your performing character (and if you're saying to yourself right now that you don't have a character and you're just yourself, shut up and re-read the previous point) can't explain what he's doing. He just chooses not to. If you can bend metal with your mind and this is a perfectly normal, mundane thing for you, would you really feel the need to explain it every chance you got? And if there is no explanation, then you have to run with that as well.

The point is that less is more. Accept the fact that no one cares about your hours of work perfecting sleight of hand in your room. You'll find that once you stop seeking validation for that work, it's liberating.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Influence by Robert B. Cialdini phD.

As promised weeks ago, here is my review of the book Influence. It won't teach you any magic, but it will teach you a lot about psychology and how to talk to people.

The thesis of Cialdini's "Influence" is that the human brain is still programmed to have automated responses to certain patterns. Someone pushes a button, and we carry out a predesignated behavior. For the most part, these functions serve us well. As we develop pattern recognition, we sublimate these patterns to our automatic responses. They turn out to be correct more often than not, so the few times they steer us wrong generally aren't damaging enough to warrant doing away with the system.

The tools of influence described are Reciprocation, Commitment/Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority, and Scarcity. Every one of them triggers powerful instinctive responses etched into out DNA. But Cialdini isn't content to simply tell you what these things are. Oh no, he's studied these specific fields for years and is able to cite experiments from across the field of psychology as well as his own experiments.

These 6 tools are most commonly applied in the fields of marketing, advertising, and sales. You've certainly experienced all of them at some point or another and there are several points in the book where you're going to feel a light switch being flicked on in your brain. For magicians and mentalists, this has applications both in performance and business.

I should note though that as Cialdini points out, these techniques are not always used in particularly ethical ways. Recognizing what principle is being used is usually enough to override the automated response, but not always. Let's break it down, shall we?

The law of reciprocity is one we're no doubt familiar with. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Being social creatures, the idea of trading favors to get by in life is as old as mankind itself. While some may exploit this to get themselves a better deal than you, the principle is still so useful in general that we just can't imagine doing away with it.

Commitment and consistency are rather devious if you think about it. People want to be seen as certain, strong in their beliefs. Once you've made a decision, you want to stick with it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is what leads to the sunk cost fallacy. And once you've made a claim, you don't want to do or say anything that might seem to contradict that. There is nothing your brain hates more than admitting it was wrong.

Social Proof is an interesting one that ties back into man's social nature. You probably are roughly familiar with the concept in the form of peer pressure, but it doesn't end there. Social proof is based on the natural assumption that the more desired something is, the better it must be. This is how rock stars get so many groupies. You see one crowd of screaming female fans, and the social proof response automatically kicks in telling you that this must be a highly desirable man. Even if that man is, say... Tommy Lee.

Some people don't like to hear that liking is a tool of influence. Those people are kidding themselves. The fact of the matter is that we will do more for people we know, like and trust than for a stranger. The world's greatest car salesman got where he was partly because he kept a list of all of his clients and prospects and sent them Christmas cards. Would it be that difficult to give someone a reason to like you so they want to book you again?

Authority has the most noticeable dark side when you consider the famous Milgram test and the Zimbardo prison experiment. Nevertheless, people defer to authority figures. We seek experts and leaders. This is why many young entrepreneurs present themselves as experts in specialized fields. It gives them an air of authority that people are more likely to take seriously.

And finally the scarcity principle. Does anyone remember that commercial for Rice Crispie Treats? The guy sees the ad, bolts to a convenience store and is relieved to find that he got the last one. As soon as he leaves, the cashier reaches under the counter and puts one in the empty box on display. Another guy comes in and also says how happy he is to have snagged the last one. That's the scarcity principle. We place higher value on that which is harder to acquire.

Overall, this book is one of the most comprehensive guides to building and cultivating influence in the world around you while simultaneously protecting yourself from the manipulations of others using these principles to less scrupulous ends. It's a must-read.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Spooky Magic 101, part VI

And now we come to the final stretch of our dark little journey. As promised, I'll be answering questions from the readers.

"One thing the horror genre does that I love is the suspense. That on your seat 'no way! is that really going to happen' or the 'whoa what's happening next' and I think that should be in a lot of magic. Could you elaborate on suspense and ways to reach that edge on seat moment."
-Shawn Mullins

Learning how to create suspense isn't as complicated as most people think. It's strictly a matter of setup and payoff. You need to give people a reason to care in the setup, and then spend just enough time teasing them with the payoff before delivering it. What distinguishes the suspense in horror is the contrast between not knowing and the understanding that knowing might actually make it worse.

In a suspense movie, a detective enters a room to investigate with his flashlight and the hitman he's pursuing is hiding behind the door waiting for the chance to get the drop on him. You're yelling at the screen, "Behind you, look out!"

But in horror, you don't know what's waiting for the protagonist. You don't want him to go where there might be danger because your mind is conjuring up all sorts of horrible ways he might get slaughtered. The anxiety and ignorance are compounded by a feeling of helplessness. It's like having the monster standing right behind you and you know he's about to do something, but you don't know what, but he's not doing it and the waiting makes you feel even worse, but you don't want to look behind you because that'll really piss him off!

To create horrible suspense, you must suggest to the audience that they want to know the payoff even though that will just make things worse.

"[W]hen performing spooky magic, how far do you think we, as magicians, should take the spookiness? ...[S]hould we be allowed to scare an audience and leave them scared?"

Good question. Where one draws the line is very difficult to decide on. There are a lot of things that a good professional would agree should not be done. For example, don't do anything that might traumatize children. Don't murder a stooge on stage and then have him stay out of sight for the rest of the evening. But it's not always clear cut. More often than not, it should be left up to the judgment of the individual performer after he has taken careful consideration of the overall tone of his show and the makeup of his audience.

As for leaving an audience scared, yes that is acceptable. Provided that's what they actually paid for. Keep in mind that a lot of horror novels and movies end with no real positive resolution. They keep us feeling afraid long after it's over. However, it's not always appropriate. And even if you do, there needs to be something to help release a little tension. Take Psycho for example. At the end, Norman is brought into custody and a psychologist is explaining to the audience in a long, talky scene about Norman's sickness. After the heart-pounding tension of the climax we as an audience need this release. But then... we hear "Mother's" inner monologue at the end suggesting that she's even more evil than the psychologist suspected. Way up, then slowly wind back down, and then a slight lift up again at the very end. Perfect.

To sum up, let them off the hook just a little bit. You want them to come down from the tension of the climax. It's the ups and downs, the peaks and valleys of emotion that make an experience memorable.

That's all the questions I received, and I hope I was able to provide answer. Later this month will come a few reviews and 5 More Ways You're Secretly Sabotaging Your Performances.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Spooky Magic 101 part V

Today we're going to get into something a little more theory heavy. Specifically, I want to talk to you about monsters. What is a monster? That's a trickier question than you might think. Some define a monster as a creature that confounds our reality (zombies for example are both living and dead) and exists only to destroy and cannot be reasoned with. Some would consider monsters to be mythic creations we use to explain and personify that which we as a society repress but cannot adequately describe in words alone. Still others may simply think of a monster as some fantastical beast and little else. There's a lot going on behind the scenes and this article can only hope to scratch the surface of it.

Every culture has monsters. Without exception. And they usually represent something beyond our understanding. They reflect the culture they were birthed from. Vampires are the personification of wasting disease, a slow and silent killer. Werewolves are the id unleashed. Ghosts are our attempt to make sense of death itself and what happens afterward. Still others are the result of barely glimpsed mysteries. Sea monsters exist in every culture with sailing in its history. And the ocean is a big place to hide all kinds of freaky nightmares. Most lands have some variation on the Bigfoot legend. My own native Pennsylvania has one. There are several in Asia and Africa. I'm pretty sure there's one in Scotland. Speaking of, the Loch Ness monster is only one of many. Pretty much every loch in Scotland contained a monster at some point. Nessie was simply the most palatable to the mainstream because it's the least disturbing. If you know anything about Celtic mythology, you know what I'm talking about.

When you get right down to it, monsters are an important part of mythology and culture. Angels and demons, vampires and werewolves, witches and warlocks, ghosts and zombies, sea monsters and yeti, the list goes on. They're every bit as prolific as the monomyth itself. We fear and respect the power that these creatures represent.

However... here's where this gets a little uncomfortable. There is another side to monsters. For centuries, people have been terrified of their mythic creatures, yet also have a desire to objectify, tame, and capture that power for themselves. Francisco Goya once hung one of his own paintings in his dining room. It depicted the Roman god Saturn devouring one of his own children. The Japanese mercenary Hatori Hanzo had such a fearsome reputation that he acquired the nickname Hanzo no Oni (Devil Hanzo), which he happily embraced. The Ford motor company named one of their luxury cars after the thunderbird, a creature from American Indian myth that created thunderstorms by battling with a giant rattlesnake in the sky. Even the Pokemon games are based on the outlandish concept of sending children out into the world to capture and subjugate wild monsters based on Japanese mythology, all of which have astounding superpowers, and train them to beat the living crap out of each other in a nationally recognized and condoned blood sport.

And of course look at modern movies. Blade. Underworld. Twilight. Monsters in these movies are not to be feared so much as coveted for their power. To be fair, the transformation of vampires from hypersexual harbingers of disease into imaginary gay boyfriend for fat teenage girls more or less started with Anne Rice. But the trend seems to be at its peak in the 2000's. Sure, people may fear getting mauled to death by a werewolf. But how afraid do you think they are of becoming one?

It's easy to trace back a monster to a primal fear, and with a little more digging you can easily unearth what's repressed as well. Zombies? Maybe you're really afraid of crowds. Aliens? More like foreigners. Werewolves? Losing control. Clowns? Pedophiles. Witches? Female sexuality. Notice that a lot of these fears also reflect something that you or the people of your culture have repressed for some reason or another. For example, witches are tied to female sexuality. In the West in particular, there's a certain taboo eroticism associated with witchcraft. Dancing naked in the moonlight, flying on broomsticks (a decidedly phallic symbol), and all manner of mysterious and strangely sexy rituals. This came about largely because most men just plain don't get women and misogynists in particular are intimidated by any sexual empowerment given to women in general.

So what does this mean for you? The knowledge of where monsters come from, what they represent, and why we fear them serves to bolster your toolbox of terror. To make something truly scary, it has to mean something. And when you know what it means and why it scares us, that's infinitely more powerful than just having an effect where you suddenly have fangs. You want to be a vampire? You're Patient 0 of a new and horrific disease. You want to be a werewolf? You're a murderer and you don't even know it. You want to be a witch? Then you're sexy and forbidden and a femme fatale and... sorry, kind of lost my train of thought there.

We'll be finishing this discussion on spooky magic with something different. I will be fielding questions from you, my readers. Any questions you have about horror and how it relates to magic I will do my best to answer. The post will be going up soon, so if you have questions ask them here in the comments, on my Twitter feed, by email or through any other channel you know to reach me at. Since I need time to write and edit, I'll only be taking questions through to Sunday. If you have one, now's the time to ask.