Psychology of Conjuring – Part 1

Misdirection is all around us. In business it’s better to offer customers a payment plan than to tell them when to pay. Not only are we ‘offering’, but ‘payment plan’ is not just payment; the mind is misdirected by the word ‘plan’ which waters down the idea of payment. In casinos they use plastic chips to help distance players from the idea of betting with money. In the media, the superficial far outweighs the serious when it comes to reader attention (just look at what news stories are trending right now). It could be said that a psychologist is someone who academically studies how other people use psychology in real life, such as con artists, card cheats, shell-game operators, fraudulent psychics, pickpockets, and magicians.

Infants learn that crying gets attention (psychology), while a parent rattles a toy in a vain attempt to distract a baby from its hunger pangs (misdirection). But even expert magicians can be lacking in a basic understanding of the psychological elements of magic, applying their superficial knowledge mechanically from what they have read from books or seen other magicians doing rather than mindfully in the here and now. A magician can spend a lifetime performing on stage but still be at a loss when it comes to close-up magic, which requires its own kind of psychology and misdirection.

In this three-part series we look at the basics of patter, misdirection and psychology for the informal, amateur close-up performer, and also the lingo used by magicians when studying these concepts.

Patter Basics

Patter is normally understood as being used to ‘make magic entertaining’. This in itself is an incomplete and misleading idea as it implies that magic in and of itself is not (or cannot be) entertaining. But there are other equally valid reasons for patter, the main ones being:

  • To make an effect meaningful
  • To help create rapport / avoid ill-feeling
  • To give an apparent reason for showing an effect
  • As a smokescreen to distract (misdirection)
  • To choreograph and justify actions

Horses for courses

We don’t use the same patter theme (presentation) for everybody we perform for; we might alter a theme or use a totally different one depending on our audience. We need to use patter and presentation that is potentially meaningful or interesting which people can enjoy or relate to. People these days are addicted to their mobile phones, and so if a prediction or chosen card appears on their phone in a text message, for some people this will have a meaning and implications far greater than if the same prediction were shown on a slip of paper.

In ‘The Homing Pigeons’ we can talk about actual homing pigeons for a younger audience because they may find that interesting. For an older audience we can talk about how card counters or advantage players use a principle they call ‘homing cards’ where, if two cards are placed at equal intervals in the deck and the cards riffle shuffled and then overhand shuffled once, due to some mathematical anomaly the two cards always turn up together. Each of these presentations can in turn be adapted to a specific audience.

Be yourself

Patter has to be our own. We can use another magician’s patter, but it needs to be moulded to our own personality and put over in our own way; otherwise it’s incongruity will attract attention, producing the opposite result from that for which it was employed (to draw people in, not keep them distanced). For example, patter in The Royal Road to Card Magic was written by middle-aged men in 1940s America. It’s safe to say that some of it will be out of date and place for us.

In magic and other performing arts we are always told to ‘be yourself’; be original, be natural and so on; but we are never told what this means. In fact it is no great mystery, at least as a concept. The challenge is in finding our own, personal reality of what it means. It is a two-part process that involves doing one thing and avoiding another:

(1) Observe yourself in everyday life. In particular, think about those occasions when you have told someone a story; say, informally in a coffee shop or at a dinner party. Think about how you tell the story, the type of story, why you tell it, how you feel when telling it, your tone of voice, mannerisms and so on. This is how we must do magic. Then observe yourself doing magic: if you are self-conscious and staring at your hands, and using subject matter entirely unrelated to your normal personality and delivered in a dry and strained manner, try and learn how to channel your relaxed, ‘dinner-party self’ into the magic. Really there should be no disconnect between the two, but as a halfway house at least try to fake it until you make it. Drilling sleights and effects so they are really sure is key to being relaxed when performing.

(2) Make a conscious effort not to imitate anyone else. In magic it is common to imitate our magical idols. We are mostly a conglomeration of the personalities of our parents, siblings, teachers and peers, which is fairly normal. But imitating other magicians is a step too far and must be avoided. (There is nothing more cringeworthy than hearing a British or American performer telling a spectator, ‘shuffle, shuffle!’ in the manner of a certain Spanish master.)

In short, the secret of being yourself when doing magic is – as strange as it may sound – to imitate yourself, or at least a part of yourself that you feel is most conducive to performing. Let’s say you feel relaxed in a coffee shop but stressed when doing magic. What you do therefore is imitate your relaxed self even though you inwardly feel stressed. Knowing how to do this stems from self observation over extended periods and takes a lot of practice to implement. It is not so much wearing a mask as entering the mindset you wish to emulate. This is why how you feel in the coffee shop is key to recreating this mood when doing magic. You need to remember how you feel and even understand why you feel that way; and why you don’t feel the same way in other situations.

Joining the dots

Outside of magic, when we recount a funny story from a holiday at a party, say, we use bullet-point moments from the event on which to hang our story. Like joining the dots, the more elaborate we like our story to be, the more dots we join up. But there is a bare minimum of dots that need joining for the story to mean anything, and this bare minimum is what we use in magic. This is because too much patter is often boring for an audience. It also distracts and detracts from the desired effect; spectators have been known to forget their selected cards when patter is too long.

In the post about strong magic it was emphasised how we should try and tune in to the moment to choose the right effect. Part of this tuning in and tailoring to the moment is choosing the right presentation and delivering it in the right way. Maybe the best we can do is take a shot at reading our audience and performing something vaguely suitable in a manner which we hope will entertain on some level. That’s all pretty tentative; maybe we hit the target, maybe we don’t. But this is better than mechanically running off the first trick that comes to mind using standard ‘one glove fits all’ presentation.

Just as we improvise the exact words used to recount our coffee-shop or party story, we improvise the actual words when tailoring patter to the moment. Whereas a formal performer will use a script, if the amateur, informal magician uses a script it will come across as unnatural and mechanical. When we deliver patter we must be careful to converse with people, not talk at them. Patter must be recreated live each and every time; we must really ask questions (“Do you play poker?”) and really listen to and respond to the answer, not just chuck the question at them and then ignore their response.

Regardless, we mustn’t fall into the trap of enjoying the sound of our own voice. Some people love to talk, but not everyone enjoys listening. Entertainment can very easily cross the line and become imposition.

Sugar-coating the pill

A friend of mine, John Muir, told me that Cy Endfield (film director and amateur card magician) once said there are three kinds of spectator: those like the Queen who simply love to see magic; those like Prince Philip who try to fathom how it’s done; and those like Princess Margaret who resent it. Regardless of the truth or accuracy of this, nonetheless there are differing reactions and attitudes towards magic and magicians.

An important function of patter is to make the element of possible disparagement towards the spectator minimal. While some magicians could be said to go too far in this respect – in a gambling demo for example, the spectator should win, not the performer, apparently – nonetheless alienating our spectators is the surest way of destroying magic.

Wanna see a trick?

Many of us will know the quote from a Somerset Maugham story about the man who offered to show the narrator a card trick; when the narrator declined, the man showed him three. The least we can do is bring the subject round to something topical or potentially interesting. Daily Mail readers, for example, will probably like to hear about spontaneous human combustion, while Express readers will surely love alien technology patter (!). In the old days people would ‘dine out’ on certain favourite stories at cocktail and dinner parties. This is pretty much an identical gambit: finding a story or theme that we know gets people’s interest due to previous favourable reactions.

Further uses of patter

In Parts 2 and 3 of this three-part series we shall look at how patter is also used to create cognitive smokescreens – better known among magicians as mental misdirection – and to help choreograph our effects and routines.

One thought on “Psychology of Conjuring – Part 1

  1. Joseph Mela

    Patter must be recreated live each and every time; we must really ask questions (“Do you play poker?”) and really listen to and respond to the answer, not just chuck the question at them and then ignore their response.
    Excellent point (in an excellent series).

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