Not So Familiar: Patter for Amateurs

A common concern of amateur magicians is how to present magic effectively to friends and family. This includes work colleagues and anyone else with whom one comes into regular contact. On the surface it may seem the easiest audience to do magic for, but in fact it is the hardest when it comes to patter and presentation. People who know one’s usual vocabulary, interests, body language and ways of expressing oneself can easily smell a rat the moment one veers away from this ‘normal self’ into the realms of magician’s patter and unusual actions; all of a sudden making more or less eye contact than normal or bringing up subjects they know you have no real interest in.

Because we are known intimately to our audience, the slightest deviation from our usual style of words, speech and manner will likely be detected. We can’t launch into patter mechanically in the way a professional magician working at a function can in front of strangers, complete with stage persona and acted mannerisms. The field of the amateur magician is a whole different ball game.

What are we talking about?

Patter is used to make a trick more entertaining than merely ‘I fooled you’, to frame it so it is interpreted in a certain way (e.g., ‘mind reading’, as opposed to ‘mathematical principle’), to create beats and off beats for purposes of misdirection, as a form of audience control (Schneider, 20111), and to act as a mental diversion; while a spectator is busy thinking about your question to them (‘Do you play poker?’, etc.), they can’t also be thinking about what you’re doing with the cards. Also, as NLP specialists like to point out, people tend to look around them or up at the ceiling when recalling or imagining something. Thus patter may trigger a form of visual misdirection, albeit not in the usual sense of ‘making people look in the wrong place’. They simply look away by themselves and we can take advantage of that.

Conversely, without patter we are at a disadvantage. We don’t just lose meaning and entertainment, we also lose mental and visual misdirection to a large degree. The question then is not ‘can we get away without patter’, but ‘how do we use patter for those familiar with us?’

Impersonal delivery

A useful ‘trick’ is to remain one step removed from the patter and magic. Instead of using personal patter we use it impersonally. First of all, an example of personal patter which might be used by a professional performing for strangers:

‘People always ask me, “Do you know how to deal a winning hand at poker?” The answer is yes and no; I never cheat but I might use one or two magician skills like this. We give them a shuffle and cut… and there we have… four Aces!’

Imagine yourself talking like that to a family member. It would sound extremely odd. Now for the impersonal approach for the amateur performing for friends:

‘This trick has a poker theme. The idea is to try and get four Aces. Apparently if you shuffle like this and cut like that, you can get an interesting result… ah, four Aces!’

With the impersonal approach one is not referring to what ‘I can do’ (as a cheat/magician) but what ‘can be done’ or ‘is done’ by someone who is a cheat or a magician. It’s the same kind of academic delivery we might use when demonstrating an effect to a fellow magician without expecting the two of us to play the parts of magician and spectator. Let’s look at another example using time-travel as the theme:

‘Here’s the Ace of Spades. I’ll put it in the middle. And here’s the Queen of Diamonds; we’ll put that in the middle too. So this is all about time travel and going back in time a few moments. Look, the Ace is still in the middle and the Queen is still on top.’

We don’t say ‘let’s go back in time’ (although for certain friends and family we can certainly say this); instead, we reference time travel as a theme.

This difference is referred to by some educators as academic explanation versus personal narrative. In personal narrative, ‘I’ do this and that; we directly convey personal experience or abilities. In academic/impersonal explanation or discourse, such and such a thing is done by those who profess to have personal experience or abilities. Those with experience in academia or science may well find the impersonal approach easier to apply to magic than those without, but it can be a useful solution to the problem of presenting magic to those for whom the personal, ‘I’ approach would seem out of place.

What magicians do

In the impersonal approach we use phrases like ‘apparently’, ‘the theme of this is’, ‘this is all about’, ‘this trick is to do with’. We describe what magicians do, not what we do. Let’s take a full patter theme for ‘Effective Poker Deal’, first with the personal approach:

‘When I play poker with my friends there are normally about four or five players, and we play good old-fashioned draw poker where five cards are dealt to each player. I’m not very lucky at poker, as you can see… But I was watching a TED Talk recently about the power of positive thinking and I wondered, is it possible to use this when playing poker? So the other night we were playing stud poker where the cards are all dealt face up and I thought to myself, think positive, think high, think… Ace!’

And so on. Now for the impersonal approach:

‘This is to do with draw poker where you get five cards each. As you can see, this is a very poor hand. But you know those TED Talks where they talk about positive thinking and all that? Well some poker players try to use that when playing high stakes poker. We could deal stud poker like this and somehow when people use positive thinking they get different results. That’s not bad, an Ace… .’

Whereas an actual academic discourse might be wooden and cold, when performing magic the impersonal approach can have as much or as little interactive banter and byplay as fits how we usually interact with family and friends. It doesn’t stop us from having a laugh and enjoying the moment, but we don’t have to try to be entertaining through the use of stories, narratives, symbolic patter and so on. Although contrary to our assumptions about magic, with people we know, the need to entertain is not there. There is almost a professional obligation for the paid performer to entertain, but for the amateur there is no such obligation because we already know our audience and have no need or obligation to entertain beyond the inherent entertainment value of the magic itself.

People come to conjuring entertainments expecting to see sleight of hand performed, and not to listen to speeches… .

– Edwin Sachs

Performing for familiar people actually has the opposite criterion from performing for strangers. Whereas the latter requires some form of entertainment beyond the magic itself in the form of patter and presentation, and building rapport so as to make the magic palatable, the former only requires that we don’t make a fool of ourselves and leave our audience cringing with embarrassment. A good way to do this is with detached, low-key patter: simple commentary and explanation said impersonally.

Here is an example of the impersonal approach in the context of ‘Red Hot Momma’ (aka ‘Chicago Opener’):

‘So here is where we talk about how a magician might secretly use marked cards to determine your card… and as you can see, there is a marked card… in fact… your card. Let’s try again with another card. Just say stop… you see, that card now becomes the ____ of _____.’

Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be

As well as talking impersonally, we should also think in terms of which ‘part’ of us is talking and interacting. I’m sure we have all had the experience of finding ourselves talking differently with different people, ‘acting like our father’ in some situations or ‘talking like our mother’ in others. We may address a nephew differently from an uncle. It’s not just the voice that changes, but the inner feeling and sense of self; we actually feel like a different person on the inside with different people.

We often have no clear conception or recognition of these different ‘selves’, but rather a mistaken sense of a single, undivided and consistent self. In particular, if we use different selves with different people, including family members, we may feel the grinding of gears when we are confronted with all these people in the same room together. Which self do I use! Why not invite someone to come forward and help with your tricks? Then you can use whichever self normally deals with that one person and the rest can just follow along.

Saying the obvious

It may sound obvious, but when we are talking to a certain person, we cannot run off patter mechanically. It needs to be adapted to that specific person. If our uncle plays poker regularly then it is silly to say to him, ‘This is all about draw poker where players get five cards each’; we need to say something like, ‘This is all about draw poker where, as you know, players get five cards each.’

For a child, the ‘Homing Pigeons’ can be the usual story about two pigeons, ‘one flying north and one flying south. There’s a storm – rain and thunder and lightning and gales and snow – but what do homing pigeons do? They fly home!’ For adults this can become, ‘These people at MIT in America who worked on card counting discovered something they call “homing cards”, which is where if you put two cards – say a Four and Seven – about a third of the way apart then give the deck one riffle shuffle… and one overhand shuffle… then due to some mathematical principle, the two cards… turn up together.’

Talking nonsense

A pitfall that the personal, ‘I’ performer can fall into with patter is (to say it bluntly) talking nonsense. Talking personally in front of strangers, we might think how entertaining it would be to explain how we recently gave a lecture to MI6 about how a deck of cards can be used for breaking spy codes. Clearly this does not have the ring of truth about it, even for strangers let alone friends and family. Even talking impersonally – ‘Apparently MI6 are looking into how a deck of cards can be used for breaking spy codes’ – will not remove the unlikely nature of the theme.

There is one way, however, to deliver such patter and get away with it, which is ‘tongue in cheek’ or with gentle irony and humour. ‘Did you see that story in The Times the other day about how MI6 are now using playing-cards to break spy codes? No really! Let’s say you’re playing snap with a stranger in the park [pause for mirth and derision]; they may actually be a double agent, passing on secret codes by dealing certain cards! Here look, I’ll show you.’ Friends and family can enjoy the unlikely story and you can still maintain distance from the action through a combination of impersonal delivery and irony.

Categories of effect

Certain tricks suit certain situations and environments better than others. Card tricks can be categorised along certain lines, such as:

  • pick-a-card
  • demonstration (passive and active)
  • spectator does a trick

Possibly the hardest to pull off for friends and family are passive demonstration tricks like ‘Effective Poker Deal’, ‘Twisting the Aces’, or ‘Back in Time’, where there is no inherent interaction with the audience and all the action takes place in your hands or on the table on your mini stage. Such effects normally require a constant flow of patter and presentation, which is difficult if we aren’t known to our spectators as chatty people (if we are, then we still need to be saying the right things in the right way).

Pick-a-card tricks inherently involve the interaction of take a card, put it back, and find it, and much of the patter can consist of conversational interaction and simple instruction. (Some effects are a combination of pick-a-card and demonstration, such as ‘Triumph’.)

‘Spectator does a trick’ effects (thanks to Danny Rosenbaum for pointing this out) such as ‘Out of This World’, ‘Spectator Cuts the Aces’, and ‘The Spectator Does a Trick’ (Al Leech) can involve simple, explanatory patter without the need to keep up a constant narrative; again, an advantage when we want to avoid too much patter. A sub-category of demonstration effects is the active (or interactive) demonstration type such as ‘Las Vegas Leaper’ and ‘Be Honest, What Is It?’, where there is a need for instruction and interaction in a similar way to pick-a-card tricks.

While certain effects can be called demonstration, it is possible to make them more interactive – and thereby help fill gaps in patter and presentation – by involving spectators more. We can get them to hold cards, deal them, ‘imagine you are in a poker game right now’ and so on, without veering too far from the impersonal delivery.

Types of patter

Understanding that not all patter is the same can help with the issue of what to say and how to say it. There are many different types of patter, but as a sort of baseline average for our purposes, used in combination with adaptation and the impersonal approach, probably the most useful are basic commentary, instruction, and themes. Themes can be introduced with a few words such as:

  • ‘How good are you at probability?’
  • ‘You know how they say there is a special connection between twins?’
  • ‘Is it possible to control someone’s mind?’
  • ‘There’s something that gamblers use called card counting.’
  • ‘Did you know a deck of cards is like a primitive computer?’

Combined with the impersonal approach of speaking, we get the following:

  • ‘The theme of this trick is probability.’
  • ‘This is all about the special connection that sometimes exists between twins.’
  • ‘Some people apparently believe in mind control.’
  • ‘This has a gambling theme and is to do with something called card counting.’
  • ‘We can pretend that this deck of cards is like a primitive computer.’


The impersonal approach may not suit everyone, as some people really don’t say much at all and even suddenly explaining something academically will come across as odd. But we have to start somewhere; we have to say something to get the bare minimum of framing, interaction and misdirection.

So we need to think about a number of elements:

  • Patter (specifically, the type of patter)
  • Speaking (personally or impersonally)
  • Improvising (adapting the actual words to fit the situation)
  • Material (the types of effect we are performing)
  • Audience (which particular person or people we are addressing)
  • Persona (which part of us is performing – our humorous self, our self-deprecating self…)

Studying and integrating all of this will take time, but even if we spend no more than a few minutes on each, we will be in a better position than having never thought about it at all. That few minutes could make all the difference between performing with confidence and feeling like a fish out of water.

1 Al Schneider, The Theory and Practice of Magic Deception (World Magic Center, 2011), pp. 201–202.

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