How to give magical presentations

Material Magic (detail) by Isabel Lizardi (IDE, 2009)

Pick a card, any card… Nick Fitzherbert uses the secrets of magic to help people in all fields of business improve their presentation skills. He’s coming into the RCA on Monday to lead our event on presentations, but if you can’t wait till then (or you can’t make it) here’s an extract from the introduction to his book, Presentation Magic.

Stop press: We'll also be broadcasting Nick's talk live on U-Stream, 6.30pm BST, Monday 14 May:

I am not allowed to tell anyone how magic works – I would be expelled from the Magic Circle in fairly short order! What I probably can risk revealing is that one of the reasons it is so important to keep the secrets is that many are so childishly simple you would be severely disappointed were you to uncover them! More often than not it really is almost all in the presentation.

When I first meet the people I am coaching in presentation skills with the Rules of Magic, I explain that coming up is everything they would expect from more standard training programmes, with the addition of principles I have gleaned from the world of magic. I usually start with a short introduction to the principles, along the following lines:

I take out a pack of cards and shuffle them, as I tell everyone I am a member of the world famous Magic Circle. I say that we meet at a very secret place on Monday nights, before revealing that it’s actually near London’s Euston Station and if they ever need a lovely venue for a corporate event it makes a fine choice. Some people know it and we have a brief chat about the HQ to build some rapport. On Monday nights, however, it is full of magicians of all shapes and sizes, many huddled around tables showing each other card tricks. As I continue to shuffle my cards I paint a scenario of myself among the magicians. Pick a card, I say, any card, where would you like me to stop? They indicate a choice and I ask if they would like to change their mind. Eventually they pick a card, show it to the others and I start to supposedly read their mind. I say, “I could go into an entire Derren Brown-style routine, getting you to think of colours, shape, values, images etc or…. I could just tell you that you have the two of hearts” (which they do). At this stage I interject quickly before they do anything embarrassing such as applaud.

“You remember I said the secret is often childishly simple? Well that’s very much the case here, because these cards are all the two of hearts …except for the one that I allowed you to see on the bottom of the pack.” As everyone lets out a joint groan I explain that even with a ‘trick’ as simple as this a variety of the Rules of Magic come into play.

Rule 3, for instance: Communication can only register effectively when it builds on what the audience already knows. I can use playing cards to communicate with you because everyone is familiar with playing cards. It probably wouldn’t work so well with, say, Tarot cards – most people are unfamiliar with concepts such as ‘major arcana’. It reminds me of a business example where many years ago I heard a talk by Bill Gates. Essentially he was telling us that we would soon be using PDAs, but he didn’t use that term, nor Personal Digital Assistants, not even Palm Pilots – it would not have registered with us as they had yet to be invented. Instead, he described it as ‘a sort of electronic wallet’, so enabling us to get our minds around the size and shape, where we would keep it and how we would use it – he was basing his communication on what we already knew.

The most important rule is Rule 1 – The framework for any communication is determined by the expectations and associations that you trigger. The moment I take out the cards it opens up in a file in everyone’s brains, telling them what they already know about playing cards – 52 cards, four suits, two colours etc – and shutting out what doesn’t fit, such as the possibility of them all being the same. So magicians can be confident that by using key words and actions their audience is all geared up to take in their message.

Once you have assessed what ‘files’ you are opening, Rule 2 comes into play. Expectations and perceptions can be reinforced or diminished by Prestige, Atmosphere & Environment and Desire. In this case I have told everyone I am a member of the world famous Magic Circle (Prestige) and I have described the scenario within the club (Atmosphere & Environment); with judgment and a little luck I have also selected a volunteer who enjoys magic (Desire).

I explain that many of the rules are essentially very simple and it is magic that helps to bring them alive. Rule 5, for instance – Concentrated attention requires a single point of focus – is something I had always known. But during 20 years in PR it never hit home quite so clearly as when I heard the Canadian magician Gary Kurtz (who trained as a psychologist) say, “Don’t divide attention between yourself and what you are doing.” I demonstrate how in magic that means things like avoiding doing card tricks at arm’s length. Immediately people start to look at the cards in my outstretched hands and I point out that their attention is now flitting between my face and my groin of all places; and you don’t really want to create focus down there! It’s much better to bring the cards up close to the face, so creating a single point of focus. In business presentations you want to keep close in to any props or screen. You also want to start planning how to simplify your messages so that you create single points of focus mentally as well as physically.

Having created a single point of focus you can benefit from applying Rule 6 – Attention tracks from left to right, then settles at the left. This is because in Western cultures we read that way. So I always set myself and any visual aids or screen left-to-right from the audience’s point of view. That way they will look at me, look across to my aids and then their attention will naturally revert to me.

Rule 18 – Doubts are reduced by openness but may be increased by over-stressing also applies in the scenario of my silly trick. Magicians will always be saying ‘pick a card, any card, do you want to change your mind etc’ – showing much openness so as to reduce the suspicion they might be cheating! What they need to avoid is phrases like ‘I have here a perfectly ordinary pack of cards’. Such overstressing is more likely to raise suspicion than avert it. In business the equivalent might be ‘feel free to speak with any one of our clients’. In reality there might be one or two who are best avoided, but by appearing so open they should inspire confidence.

Finally, Rule 19 – People put more reliance on something they have worked out for themselves. When I am supposedly reading their minds for the two of hearts I allow them to see the different bottom card. So, even if only subconsciously, they are registering the fact that they can see a different card, which confirms in their minds that everything seems to be in order. Your brain will believe anything that you tell it, but it will question anything that anyone else tells it. So if you can communicate through persuasion, you have your audience locked in and ready to receive your message.

To continue developing your presentation skills with the help of magic, buy Nick’s book online or come to his workshop at Fuel RCA on Monday 14 May 2012.

Stop press: watch the video of Nick's talk here: