Memorable Magic: Emotions

Published on Thursday, November 22, 2007 in , , , , , ,

Made To StickMagicians have long been aware of the power of emotional performances, but they've also struggled with creating them.

The best way to start getting people to care about your performances, is to understand what they care about. As Mother Theresa framed this principle, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Joseph Stalin stated the same principle in a much more cynical manner, “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.” Either way, a focus on smaller groups and/or the individual is a great way to start. This principle is best described in detail, in the article Inside the Monkeysphere (mirror article).

Besides focusing on the few or the one, you should also remember that emotions aren't a new experience for your audience. They have an entire mental library of experiences of which you can take advantage. If you can link your routine to emotional ideas held by your audience, you've made your act memorable and powerful. Magician Tina Lenert does just this with her renowned cleaing lady routine:

The emotional associations in this routine are so strong that most people find themselves forgetting that there is only one person on stage, not two. Throughout this routine, it's easy to identify the nervousness of meeting someone new, the process of falling in love with them, and even the overall theme of hope and imagination. You begin to treat the broom-and-mop guy as a separate character from the cleaning lady, because the emotional associations are so strong and clear.

David Copperfield's torn-and-restored $500,000 baseball card is a simpler example of association. True, few of us can relate to owning a half-million dollar collectible, but we can all relate to the idea of having something valuable destroyed. This makes the possibility of restoration very emotionally appealing. It's next to impossible to give association the space it deserves in a single blog entry. However, if you would like to learn more, Kenton Knepper has written an entire book on just this topic, called Mystery By Association.

One of the dangers of employing association is the overuse of it. In his 16th special, David Copperfield presented a routine called Grandfather's Aces. It's an ace routine given an emotional context of doing the trick in honor of his grandfather, who taught him the trick, but died before David ever did a big show. The routine on the special itself was well presented. However, it did trigger a problem.

Not only did the ace routine itself prove popular among magicians, but so did the idea of appealing to the emotions through the use of dead grandparents. You even started seeing marketed tricks that employed the idea, such as Grandpa's Day at the Races and Grandpa's Deck. It got so bad that a new term was added to the magician's lexicon: dead-grandfather tricks.

The more technical term for this is semantic stretch. When an emotional association (or word, or phrase, or...) is overused, its effectiveness decreases. Overused associations are the primary cause of an audience feeling like you're just trying to pull emotional heartstrings. In Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath detail how semantic stretch happened to the word unique and the concept of sportsmanship. The unsurprising answer is to employ associations that are distinctive for your presentations and style.

Another way to involve your audience emotionally is to appeal to their self-interest. One look at most advertisements would give the impression that this is as simple as using fear, greed and sex. True self-interest is more than that. It wasn't until 1954 that Abraham Maslow brought to light a more thorough list of needs. Take a look at how Derren Brown uses self-interest to make this routine more memorable and effective:

Yes, fear (physiological/safety/security), greed (security/esteem) and sex (belonging/esteem) are powerful needs, but they're not the only needs. There is nothing wrong with appealing to them, as Derren Brown demonstrates.

The problem is when you appeal only to those, a concept known as staying in Maslow's basement (using only the most basic of Maslow's needs). First, it makes a presentation stale, and second, it shows a lack of true concern for your audiences. Derren Brown has numerous other routines that could easily be classified as appealing to aesthetic or self-actualization needs.

One final principle of emotional presentation is that of appealing to identity. On the surface, this sounds the same as self-interest, but it's distinctly different. In self-interest, the mental question is: How does this affect my interests? In indentity, there are three questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? and What would a person like me do in a situation like this? In other words, self-interest appeals to the individual, while identity both the individual and their monkeysphere.

For example, take a look at David Blaine performing his two-card monte routine. In this case, we're not so much interested in the first part with Emmitt Smith (although this is a great way of establishing credibility as an entertainer), but the second part, where he's performing for a group in Compton:

In performing this for the group in Compton, David Blaine had to appeal to their identity first. These people aren't tourists looking for entertainment, they're in their neighborhood, and likely suspicious of any stranger (especially when he's bringing along a camera crew). David Blaine acts like them, talks like them, and appeals to their interest, thus making it easier to connect with them. Can you picture any of these people watching David Copperfield or Derren Brown? Further, anyone living in a similar manner who is watching this special can also immediately connect with David Blaine.

Every magician wants their audience to care about what they do. Designing your act to be authentically appealing to the emotions is the way to do that. For more on the power of emotions, check out the emotion category of the Made To Stick blog.

See also:
Memorable Magic: Simplicity
Memorable Magic: The Unexpected
Memorable Magic: Concreteness
Memorable Magic: Credibility

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