Sunday, August 30, 2009

So What?

The difference between asking "what?" and "so what?" is no small difference. In fact, it's a world of difference—an example how one small change can completely change your perspective.

Asking "what?" is all about the data. What props are in play? What's the first step? What happens next? What is the method? The patter? The presentation? What kind of trick is it? Cards? Coins? What is the effect? You get the idea.

So what? Exactly.

Asking yourself "so what?" forces you to ask why all this data is important. Why should you or anyone else care? What if you never did anything at all...would it be noticed? Are people impacted in the way you set out to do? Or did you even consider the what the desired impact would be? Is it meaningful? Memorable?

Let's illustrate this with the classic effect, "Triumph."

What? (the data)
  • Cards are used.
  • A card is selected and lost in the deck.
  • The cards are shuffled face up and face down.
  • All the cards right themselves, except for the selected card.

So What? Asking this about the above actions
  • So what if cards are used? Since most people can relate to using cards, it's a way to connect with your audience.
  • So what if a card is selected? Opportunity to involve the participant.
  • So what if the cards are shuffled face up and face down? It's unusual. It's raises curiosity. It begs for resolution.
  • So what if the cards "unshuffle" themselves? It brings natural order in a magical way.*
  • So what if the participant's card as the only one facing the other way? It validates their involvement. Having their card do something special makes it personally meaningful. It creates a memorable visual snapshot.
I also find that asking "so what?" often leads "what if?" questions. This has two primary benefits: 1) It can refine and perfect your current process; and 2) It can lead to something unexpected avenue. For example, "What if I used coins instead?"or "What if the participant was allowed to mix the cards too?"

Keep in mind that you don't have to limit this approach just magic. Asking these types of questions any time can offer clarity on the meaningfulness of your actions, whatever they may be.

*see past blog entry called Serendipity

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Magic LIVE!

So I was sworn to secrecy leading up to Magic LIVE!, held in Las Vegas August 16-19. I was asked by Joshua Jay and Stan Allen to present an original effect during the Wednesday morning session—in front of a thousand people! A bit nervous? Of course. An exciting rush? Absolutely. And it all went off without a hitch.

I presented my effect "Truth In Advertising" (an update to "Optical Opener," which I originally published on my Second Storm DVDs). We had a bit more time on stage,so I also taught my Ballet Cut.

Man, to have David Williamson come up to afterward actually doing the Ballet Cut... that was one of the many highlights. Also high on my list was exchanging ideas over lunch with John Bannon and Simon Aronson.

I also teamed up with Tyler Wilson, Andi Gladwin and Rune Klan to conduct two hour-long Card Workshops. I taught the latest version of my effect, "Palm Reader."

Before leaving Vegas, I filmed some material for potential publication later this year through Vanishing Inc. In all, a very memorable and amazing trip.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's the effect?

Magicians hate the word trick; we use effect. We know that magic is not about tricking someone; it's about creating a memorable and extraordinary moment.

But, it hit me that we don't use the word to it's fullest meaning. I'm just as guilty as anyone in using effect to merely offer a description if what happens with the props (e.g. "the Aces turn over" or "the card jumps to the pocket"). But what is the effect on people? What impression are we making on them?

Take for instance the classic Razor Blade Swallowing effect. The typical effect description is something like, "You take five razor blades, slice through a paper to prove their sharpness, swallow them, swallow a thread, then pull the thread back out with all five razor blades tied to it."

Now, what is the effect on the audience? I imagine it would be something like, "The audience wonders if his mouth will bleed; they squirm at the thought the pain and injury that might come from swallowing them; they watch with baited breath as the thread is slowly pulled out; they give a cautious sigh of relief and are left with a striking image of how something like this was even possible." Powerful stuff. And it's a reminder of how critical presentation and structure is to ensuring our desired effect on people is realized.

Do I think magic books should describe effects this way? Not really. Do I think this should be part of the thought process when developing an effect? Absolutely. And I'm sure that's what many of us do, but maybe not as intentionally as we should.

Try this: Open any magic book and read just the effect descriptions. After having a clear image of what happens to the props, ask yourself what the participants are likely saying or feeling? Rather than view the effect just from their eyes, view it through their emotions. I venture to say that the best effects will be those where the audience is most captivated and involved.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Lu Chen on Taiwanese TV

One of my favorite opening tricks to perform is "Color Blind," a simple Ace production that I originally featured on my Brainstorm DVDs. I was honored when my good friend Caleb Wiles asked if he could use "Color Blind" as the lead-in for his acclaimed effect "Reswindled" (featured on Paul Harris' new project and Caleb's superb book, High Spots).

The pairing of these tricks caught the eye of acclaimed magician Lu Chen, who can be seen performing "Color Blind" and "Reswindled" on a Taiwanese variety show. And oh, the reactions he gets. Watch the video here.

While Caleb's trick is the true attraction here, it's fun to see how my simple opener can make such an astonishing impression half way around the globe.

More so, watching the clip reminded me that just because something is simple, does not mean it's insignificant. And just because something may have lost that "newness factor" to you, does not mean it can't be astonishingly new to others.

Friday, June 19, 2009

One of my earliest magical memories was watching Doug Henning on television. I was 7. With all the lavish and whimsical illusions coming from the TV screen, one image captured me—a close up of Henning's hand. In it, one nickel. He slowly closed his hand, and when he opened it the nickel was gone! With my jaw still dropped and my eyes fixated on the screen, his fingers closed, then slowly opened to reveal the nickel. It was so simple and pure, yet incredibly magical. It defied explanation. Well, that's all it took for me. It was a tipping point. I officially became a student of the art so that I too could bring the same childlike wonder to others of any age.

As I approach turning 41 next month, it's kind of cool to look back at how the whole magic thing got started with me. What's your earliest memory? How has shaped you?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Crazy Ones

My favorite commercial of all time is from Apple's 1997 Think Different campaign. The visuals, the music, the inflection of Richard Dreyfus' voice, the carefully crafted message...they inspire me every time. It reaffirms my purpose as an artist, a leader, a husband and father, and practitioner of the magic arts; and my ability to personally impact people in unique and profound ways.

"Crazy Ones" commercial, 1997

We all have the opportunity to make a dent in the universe. Even something as simple as magic trick can create an extraordinary moment for someone. Am I crazy enough to think this can ever make a difference? The last line says it all: "...the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In The Now

When reading a book, it's not just about reaching the final pivotal chapter. Every word of every page is important to the present moment. Yet in life, how many times do we find ourselves skipping ahead—so focused on what's next—we lose sight of what's now?!

One of my favorite magic routines is a combination of two tricks: "Intuition" and "Out of the Blue" (both featured on my Brainstorm DVDs). Over time, I realized that I was not giving "Intuition" its due credit as a strong effect in itself. It's more than just a trick that sets up the next...more than just a connector to something's an incredible mental effect in and of itself—and a Hofzinser-inspired classic. Yet, I often found my inner voice saying, "But just wait until they see the next trick. Those color-changing backs are going to blow them away." I was two steps ahead in the future to be fully invested in the present.

I was skimming and skipping ahead to the good part, instead of bringing the current page to life. This experience has reminded me to become more purely invested in every given moment and to maximize "now" with true conviction. Knowing this has helped me improve my performance in terms of pacing, accentuating the effect, being more expressive, and getting the most out of each magical moment.

So, whatever page you're on now, here's to making the most if it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Getting Past Mental Block

You know the have hundreds of card tricks stored in your head, then someone asks to see a trick and you suddenly forget everything you've ever known. Mental block! We live in the information age. As we acquire more knowledge, it becomes more and more difficult to filter through it all. That's the challenge—adding to our knowledge base without forgetting past learnings.

To help avoid mental block in magic, I have a few mnemonic devices I use to help trigger my memory, especially in off the cuff performing situations. I begin by preparing a list of some favorite effects and group them by number, one through six. Each number represents a category of tricks to choose from. Here's an example I use:
  1. ONE = Tricks where just one card is selected (Optical Opener; Double Trouble; spectator peek)
  2. TWO = Tricks where two cards are selected (Club Sandwich & Double Monte; two-card transpo)
  3. THREE = Think "tri" as in TRIumph; Collectors (three selections); or a sandwich trick (one selection between two cards)
  4. FOUR = Four-card production, etc. (Color Blind; Tailspin; The Ripper)
  5. FIVE = Five cards are used...four-of-a-kind plus one selection (Palm Reader; Homage to Homing)
  6. SIX = The "X" represents the ending destination...a closer. (Ambitious; Ballet Stunner)
By grouping the tricks, it allows you to remember much more. It's similar to how we remember phone numbers in groups of three or four numbers rather than trying to remember all 10 digits at once. The fun part is choosing effects that have meaning to you and associating them with the appropriate number.

Sometimes instead of numbers, I'll use an acronym. Choose any word that has some significance to you or a specific performing situation (such as stroll or magic). Here's an example with the word impact:

I = Intro trick such as a shuffle demo / Invisible Deck
M = Monte / Money trick
P - Production (aces or selections)
A - Ambitious
C = Card change / Clairvoyance
T = Transposition / Triumph / Tailspin

Here's another example using an alphabetical order:

A = Advertising (my new version of Optical Opener) / All-backs
B = Biddleless (new) / Behind-the-back Triumph
C - Club Sandwich & Double Monte
D - Dreamcatcher (my version of Armstrong's Instantaneous Sandwich)
E = Either Or (new)
F = Flying Card (using Audley Walsh's Long Distant Spinner)
G = Syner-Gee Ace production
H = Homage to Homing / Here, There, Everywhere
I = Invisible Deck

So, call me a geek, but this stuff works. It allows me to store a lot more information, have some flexibility during performance, avoid mental blocks, and focus more on my audience. It enables me to carry an organized mental list with me wherever I go...especially handy when someone hands me a deck and asks to see something.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Influencing behavior does not require overt actions—in fact, you can actually alter human behavior dramatically using simple, subtle cues. This is the theory in Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein's recent book, "Nudge."

"Nudges" can be used to influence people's eating choices, for example. In a recent experiment on Good Morning America, a camera was set up in the break room to observe employees eating from a catered spread of doughnuts and fruit. The first day, the majority went for the doughnuts (only a third went for the fruit).

The next day, the fruit was elevated on a pedestal dish—and more people opted for the fruit. When signs were posted citing that the average American consumes fruit for breakfast, and even more people went for the fruit.

What nudge that made the biggest difference? Mirrors! Mirrors were hung on the wall behind the food, and the group consumed far more fruit than any other day. Hardly any went for the doughnuts. See clip here.

While the book primarily focuses on influencing people's decisions regarding health and wellness, the theory can certainly applied to magic. Simple cues can be used to influence action in your participants. What types of "nudges" have you already used or can develop for future use to influence audience behavior? How might this be used intentionally in an effect?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stronger Connections

I've had some enlightening discussion this week, with both fellow magi and business colleagues. Here are a few things that resonated with me. They all revolve around connecting with your audience in more powerful ways.

Be you
How does your audience get to know you—not just your magic, but you? What's your opening line, opening gesture, opening effect? Are they all genuine expressions of who you truly are? Shoot for authenticity both on and off the stage, and you'll create stronger connections with others.

Parts in a play
Instead of treating your audience as strangers who are simply observing you, try this cool approach that a magician friend of mine uses: Treat your audience as cast members in a play whose parts you have not yet written. Throughout your performance, live in the moment, respond, react, and transition to the next scene based on what they say and do. Make them an integral part of the entire experience.

It's about the journey
Knowing where you want to go is great, but there's more than just getting from point A to point B. It's about making the most of every "sub-point" along the way and doing everything you can to create several extraordinary moments. Enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

Time to breathe
Sometimes it takes a few moments for genuine reactions emerge. I've mistaken people's initial silence as a sign that they were either bored or detached—but learned that fantastic reactions were just percolating and on their way to the surface. Next time you're waiting for a response of any kind, wait a few beats longer than you normally would before stepping in or moving on. Give your magic time to breathe. Watch David Blaine at the end of an effect. He remains quiet. He lets the audience replay what the heck just happened and allows them to react and respond at their own pace. Often this leads to some amazing expressions of astonishment.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Does every magic effect have to contain a "magical moment"? Can it be equally as strong if instead of magic (as in defying rules of nature), it resulted in something that is in fact possible in real life?

Let's explore Triumph, a classic Vernon effect where a deck that's been shuffled with half the cards face up and face down "magically" straightens out. In most variations, there is a magical moment (casting a shadow, a mystic wave of the hand, a quick riffle of the cards, etc.) that causes the condition of the deck to change. But how connected is the audience in this process? Are they truly involved in the "hey, look what I can do" demonstration? Yeah, they selected a card, but are they genuinely part of the experience?

What if Triumph was presented with the spectator unshuffling the cards? Imagine hopelessly mixing the cards up and down, then simply handing the deck to your participant. They place the deck behind their back and turn groups of cards up and down, stopping whenever they want. They bring the deck back out, the cards are spread on the table, and they are all now face up, except the card they named before the trick started. The participant somehow defied all odds in unshuffling the deck—something that is in fact possible, but utterly unbelievable.

This approach is a reminder that not all magic has to highlight the magician's mystical powers, but rather the true magic is often in the audience doing, seeing, feeling and experiencing something rare and incredible. In these moments, I am not a magician in the traditional sense; I am a mere catalyst sparking remarkable and extraordinary experiences within the audience. They create the impact.

While this approach is not new and can be seen in many classic effects, it would be worth applying the idea to effects that aren't typically "participant-induced." By transferring the wonder from your hands into others' hands, I think you'll find them talking more about extraordinary possibilities, and how they play a role in it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Marketing 101

What does Marketing have to do with magic? A lot, as it turns out. We are ALL marketers in many levels of our lives. In magic, marketing is more than hiring a booking agent. Marketing means having an acute understanding of our very essence. And the classic "Four Ps of Marketing" are a good starting point to help us gain focus.

This is what you're selling. Duh! But think about it...what ARE you selling? What is your product, your brand? Why your product over someone else's? How do you ensure consistent quality? What need are you filling? For more about this, see my earlier post, The Napkin Approach.

What are you worth? What value do you provide (value in the sense of meaning and importance)? If you charge lower than others, is this a smart thing, or does it diminish your perceived value? If you're priced higher than average, why? What is it that you bring to the table? Utimately, does your price do justice to your brand? (Study other brands like Hyundai or Rolex to see how price works into their branding strategies.)

Place typically refers to how the product moves from the factory to the shelf. And are you on the right "shelf?" What does it look like when your perform? What's the ambiance, the vibe? Is it dark and mysterious, or loud and boisterous? Would you do a kid's show, a Renaissance fair, a cabaret act, or a stage show? Why? Ultimately, is the place consistent with your brand?

Who wants your brand? What are people saying about you? How are you targeting them? How are you delivering the promise of your brand? What are new trends? How are you tapping into people's interests? Do you focus more on reach (number of people) or frequency (the times of exposure)? Does you promotion adequately reflect the promise of your brand? And how are you ultimately delivering on your promise?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March of Progress

What an exciting month of magic March is turning out to be...

Magic Magazine
March marks my debut in Magic Magazine. My effect, "Intro-Verted," is published in Joshua Jay's "Talk About Tricks," column. Magicians get to learn the trick step by step and read a brief interview with Josh and I.

The Notebook
Will Houstoun's, The Notebook, just arrived. In this superb book that sheds light on 81 card tricks performed in the latter half of the 18th century by some of the greatest magicians of the age. I had the pleasure of meeting Will during my recent trip to London, where he showed me around the legendary Magic Circle and the library where he did his research for the book.

True Astonishment
I just received Paul Harris' long anticipated 9-DVD True Astonishment project. Paul's a hero, and I'm honored to have my effect "Color Blind" (Brainstorm DVDs) included on the set (as an intro to Caleb Wiles' "Reswindled"). Very cool!

TFD Convention
I'm looking forward to sessioning with some of the best minds in card magic at The False Deal Convention in Oklahoma City, March 26-28. I had the pleasure of lecturing at last year's convention in Dallas.

Team Magic
I'm leading a team for philanthropic support at the YMCA, and we're calling ourselves, "Team Magic." We're using magic to inspire our team and make impact in the community.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Practice Makes Better

In a business meeting the other day, a colleague mentioned she often uses the phrase "practice makes better" rather than the standard "practice makes perfect."

Interesting. It makes sense really. I'd rather consider perfection an ongoing ideal, not a destination where there's nowhere else to go. If you reach a level of total perfection, does that mean no more practice is necessary? (For the answer to that, see my earlier post, "Ladder to Mastery.")

So about practice. I practice my magic incessantly until moves become second nature. This allows me to focus my presentation on connecting with people. I practice almost every day. I have decks of cards all around the house (sorry, Debbie) so practice is always at arms reach. And I don't just practice moves and effects; I practice grace and finesse. I practice holding the cards with the lightest possible touch and doing the moves with a fluid motion. Having a refined touch with the cards helps separate the above average from the average.

I often practice without holding any props at all; I simply pantomime with my bare hands. It helps to heighten my awareness of movement and motion. Try it. Practice an entire effect using nothing but your hands. Pretend to hold the cards; pretend to do a your sleights; pretend to make a coin vanish. Watch your hands. How do they look? Are they cramped? Do they move with grace and fluidity? Magic should be a beautiful thing to watch, even when something magical is not happening.

I also practice in my head—by reciting patter, dreaming up potential plots and making mental notes of things I'd like to try. Carry a pocket digital recorder with you (I have mine in the car). This way, if an idea strikes you, you can record it at a moment's notice.

My favorite way to practice is to have card sessions with fellow magicians. Whether at the Magic Castle, the local magic shop, or magic convention, it's a great opportunity to exchange ideas and chops with fellow magicians. It's how my first DVDs got their name: Brainstorm.

The best practice comes when actually performing for people. Let them be your true mirror. Test out new tricks with small groups to help work out the kinks and build confidence. This also helps develop the presentation, choreography and address issues that did not arise during solo practice sessions.

And finally, be sure to practice the right things. As Richard Turner put it in the latest ReelMagic magazine, if you practice something over and over again, but do it incorrectly, you've pretty much mastered how to do it wrong. So be sure to use sound technique, always!

And when you feel you've reached a level of perfection, keep practicing, because practice makes better.

Friday, February 6, 2009

T.I.P.S. (vol. 1)

T.I.P.S. - Tested Ideas and Practical Suggestions
A friend recently asked for my advice on an upcoming strolling gig. He's fairly new to taking his skill into real world performing situations, but is by all means ready. Formulating a response meant looking into my own practices—a learning experience in itself. Here are some nuggets I shared:
  • Focus on cohesive sets of three.
  • Plan ahead. Instead of just listing the tricks, be clear about how you want your audience to react to you (see "The Napkin Approach").
  • Your opener should be quick, visual, and authentically you.
  • Know as much about the gig, environment and guests before the show. Standing only? Small groups? Round tables of 8-10 seated guests? Ambient noise? Number of guests? Plan accordingly.
  • Dress one level above your guests.
  • Be a people person. Make eye contact. It's about you and them, not just about the tricks.
  • Exude confidence.
  • I usually make my set list by listing primary and alternative effects. This gives me breathing room to change things up a bit. Here's an example from my own repertoire:
  1. Rubberbands routine (or Full Circle)
  2. Casino Chip and deck production (or Copper/Silver)
  3. Optical Opener (or Ballet Stunner)
  4. Card Transpo (or Triumph)
  5. Homage to Homing (or Palm Reader)
  6. Ambitious Card (or In a Flash)
  7. (Encore if appropriate: Invisible Deck or Constellation)
  • After the gig, be curious. What worked? What could have gone better? What surprised you? What did you learn?

Thursday, January 29, 2009


So I recently returned from lecturing and performing at The Session in Gloucester, UK. What an incredible experience it was, sharing my magic with 120 magicians from around the globe.

After the three-day convention, my wife and I and our 8-year old daughter spent a week in London—and a full day in Paris! Seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre was an incredible rush—but that's not the only work of art that caught my eye.

Look closely at this painting, entitled The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, by French baroque painter Georges de la Tour. At first glance, we are are seeing a fairly typical game of cards; but look deeper. The young man on the right is so focused on his hand, that he is oblivious to the cheating taking place on the other side of the table. The women are exchanging glances, either because they're on to the cheater or they're in on the scam. Moreso, the artist offers a moral statement into the dangers of wine, women, and gambling.

As a card magician, there is another level of captivation—this painting is from the 1630s, nearly 380 years ago. If you think that's a long time ago, consider that playing cards were actually fairly modern at that time since they date back as early as the 9th century in China during the Tang Dynasty.

The first book on magic was published in 1594 by Englishman Reginald Scott, entitled The Discover of Witchcraft. With this important turning point in magic, the author gave detailed analysis of sleight-of-hand and magic tricks in order to refute superstitions around them.

In the 1800s, Johann Hofzinser, remembered as the father of card magic, frequently entertained the high Society of Vienna, mixing social satire with magic. Many of the card effects we know and love today are attributed directly to Hofzinser.

So why share these bits of history? In many ways, it's the history that's the real magic. And while I've shared just a few milestones, I hope it serves as a reminder of magic's power throughout history to impact people in unique and profound ways. Keep this in mind next time you pick up a deck of cards. I think you'll find yourself handling them with a new air of grace, finesse and care that gives a nod the magic's rich heritage as a performing art—and ultimately elevates your magic onward.