Magic & Speaking

Dear Friends:

Here we are, entering what I always think of as the dark part of the year. Halloween has come and gone, and the days grow ever shorter. Although the winter holidays seek to brighten our spirits, this can be a daunting time. I generally have found it to be a time that is creatively productive, but challenging.

For our Magic & Mystery School, November will be filled with classes, most of which are already overflowing. We’ve had a good year, and the school seems to be thriving. And yet… this is a time of reflection and introspection—where do we go from here? Are we really doing as well as it feels we are? Does that mean we’re in danger of stagnation? I wonder.

Tobias with Book

For the purposes of this Museletter, I thought you might enjoy a section from my last book, The Wizard’s Way to Powerful Presentations. As Jeff, Stephen Shapiro and I prepare to teach “Magic for Speakers & Presenters,” this weekend, I’ve found myself reflecting on just what speakers and magicians have in common, and so this segment on how we design experiences to achieve a particular purpose, came to mind.  Oh… and we DO have a single space left in the class. If you’re interested, go to now and grab it!

(from The Wizard’s Way to Powerful Presentations)

Create Experiences

Basic data and bare-bones logic all by themselves make for boring presentations. Tell stories in order to draw your audience in and to bypass their logical, linear objections. Stories provide vicarious experience, and, as all true wizards know, experience is what changes people. Actual interactive experiences can be even more powerful than vicarious ones, so the best speakers find ways to include those, too.

Once Upon a Time

Using the Power of Stories

Some people theorize that we can only think clearly about experiences once we have distilled them into words. Others tell us that we only make sense of events once we turn those words into stories. Stories are the way that our minds make sense of the world. Stories evoke our emotions, and they tend to be what we remember.

Create Mild Trance

A little-known effect of listening to a story is that the experience puts us into a light trance. You’ve experienced this type of trance if you’ve found yourself deeply involved in a great book or a show on television and failed to hear your family members talking with you. If you’re like me, you might have to be called to dinner several times before you even hear the call. You are so buried in the world of the story that you’re no longer really conscious of your everyday world. That is trance, and you’ll find that your audiences are often in a mild trance state.

One of the things we know about trance is that under its influence, we become suggestible. When we are in a trance state, we accept and do things without the interference of our rational mind. Though it is true that a hypnotist can’t make you do something you really don’t want to do, you have to not want to do that thing at a fairly deep level in order to resist the hypnotist’s command. As a true wizard power presenter, then, it’s important that you realize you have the ability to issue commands, and have your audience just accept them, to a degree you might not be used to experiencing in everyday life. If your cause is just and important, this is a power you’re completely justified in using.

Engage emotions

The best presentations are designed to change those who experience them. People are changed and people make decisions through emotion. Ninety-nine percent of decisions are purely emotional, with the rational mind only kicking in to justify the decision after it has been made. Stories stir the emotions. Audiences identify with the protagonist of a story, and if something great happens to that person, they feel great. If something terrible happens, then they’ll feel terrible—or outraged, or whatever else your telling of the story is designed to make them feel. Your presentation, (and we’ll come back to this) can use imagery, rhythm, vocal dynamics, and other elements to enhance that emotion.

So, if you want your presentation to be remembered, use stories to make your points. If you want your logic to be accepted, wrap it in a story!


Creating Interactive Experiences

Even better than a story we hear is one that we actually participate in. These are interactions. When a speaker involves audience members directly in their presentation, making them characters in the story they are creating for them, they find themselves much more deeply attached to and emotional about that story, than one they have only heard, rather than participated in. The story becomes more immediate. Instead of something that happened to someone else sometime in the past, it is happening to me, right now. It’s hard not to be engaged in that!

Another thing that happens when people have experiences together is they begin to feel more like a group. Rather than an audience made up of lots of individuals, you begin to create a kind of tribal mind. Great speakers at political rallies and in large religious groups make use of this group feeling to great advantage. You can use it, too.

One way to generate direct interaction is just to ask for it.  “Whenever I ask ‘Can we do it,’ I need you to shout ‘Yes we can!’” Another is to ask people to stand in the audience or come to the stage, and take a role. “If you could just stand here and hold this, and whenever I say X, you’ll do Y. Got it?”  When you do enlist the aid of an audience member, it’s important for you to realize you have made them a special representative of all the others in the audience, and that it’s important that you treat them well. Treat them badly, and you’ll lose the audience. Yet another way to get involvement is just to ask for a response to a question. “Give me a show of hands. How many of you took a bus to get here? How many drove their own cars?” Any of these actions will get and keep your audience involved.

Attention Creates Experience

As a stage director, one of my most important jobs is to let the audience know where they need to look. When I work with magicians, controlling the audience’s attention is even more important. It’s the same with your presentations.

Audiences can pay attention to exactly one thing at a time. If you give them multiple possible attention points, you will confuse and lose them. For example, if you present your audience members with a slide or other visual that is so complex that it will take them more than a few seconds to read or understand it, then continue speaking before they have completely absorbed the information on the slide, their attention will not be on what you are saying. Great presenters make sure they control where their audience’s attention will be at all times throughout the presentation. First on the speaker, then on a visual, and then back on the speaker. While it’s okay to narrate a slide, you need to be aware that when you are doing that, the audience’s attention will be fully on the slide.

You can design your graphics so that they are only visible at full intensity during the time you want attention to be on the graphic and will then fade or blur out. You can learn to take the stage back from your slide by moving, raising your voice, asking a question that demands an answer, or any one of a hundred other ways. The time to think about all this is when you are still designing the experience.

If you want to become a real wizard power presenter, the way to get there is by trying out as many of these different techniques, in front of as many different audiences as possible. Some will work, some will fail. Different techniques work for different people, and they work differently for different audiences. But you won’t know which ones work for you till you’ve tried them.

That’s it for this edition. Jeff will be back with news in just a couple of weeks.

Best wishes.


Tobias Beckwith


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