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Approaching Directly

Thoughts on approaching spectators for close up magic.

In the thousands and thousands of times I have approached people to show them magic, I have been refused very very little. The most times I have been refused was when I was working a small international bar in Spain, the tourist clientèle was a huge mixture of Spanish, German, Dutch, French, English and other nationalities. Due to the language barriers, many of the groups thought I was simply busking for loose change and would say no.  In the other few circumstances I have been refused it was because they did not want to see magic, either because they did not like magic (or thought they didn’t*) or because they where busy discussing something. In the past two years at paid gigs I can’t recall a single time somebody has said no.

Ask a hundred magicians what the best line to say to approach a group of people is, and you will probably get hundred different answers.

The truth is — it doesn’t really matter what you say. Or at least it doesn’t, once you think about what you are saying, and why you are saying it.

Many magicians think you should never ask if they would like to see magic, as asking a question can lead to a no. This is a bad way of thinking, people should always be given a choice, even if you disagree with their choice, you have to respect it. Nobody should be dictated to enjoy something. Magic is about sharing a great experience together, if people do not want to be part of that experience and you coax them into it, they probably will be hard work. Sticking with those who want to see it, will generally create a much better and appreciative audience. However, you can change the wording around to lower your chances of the dreaded ‘no’ as I will discuss…

Solving a puzzle is a self rewarding ‘ahhh’ moment – no matter how small the puzzle may be. When a magician approaches a group, the question in most peoples mind is “Who the hell is that guy?“. If they can answer the question themselves, they are going to be more interested and less defensive. Holding a pack of cards or similar prop isn’t exactly a subtle clue to let them know you are a magician, but approaching with a deck of cards will more than likely answer their ‘who the hell is that guy‘ question in their own minds before you have told them. When I am in close proximity I look at everyone in the group and smile, and quickly pick out who is the ‘leader of the pack’ or who could potentially be trouble, I’m making quick judgements based on experience to help me later on- and all of this happens in a few short seconds. I tell them, “Hello, I’m the magician for tonight, and I’m going to show you a few quick tricks, if that’s all right” (nodding for approval). I am delibratly avoiding, the ‘Do you want to see some magic?‘ question and replacing it with a ‘I’m going to show you a few quick tricks…if that alright’.  If you know anything about linguistics you’ll know that a command, statement and question all sound very different, and I don’t ask ‘if that’s alright?’ I say ‘if that’s alright‘ as if its a statement, by not going up in tonality at the end of the sentence to imply its a question. Its subtle but it works. It’s a lot better to appear to give a free choice, but in reality giving them much less of a free choice than a direct ‘would you like?’ type question – which quite rightly will bring more ‘nos’ because its a much simpler question to answer, and one that is easy to dismiss without much thought to what you actually want. We are almost programmed to question things and say no if something seems to good to be true. If they really do not want to see magic they can still easily say no, and it would not be a problem. I say I’m the magician for tonight, because I want to let them know I haven’t wondered in off the street, I am supposed to be here, and I have been hired to be the magician for tonight, hopefully giving me some sort of status straight away. By saying ‘a few quick tricks‘ I’m suggesting even if they don’t like it, it won’t take up much of their time.  Some magicians think the word tricks is a derogative term for what they do, I think those magicians should get over themselves. ‘Do you want to see some magic?‘ or ‘Do you want to see some magic tricks?’ sounds a little childish and patronising in my mind, and ‘tricks’ for me, pretty well describes what I do – magic tricks — or in short form, tricks. I don’t do magic, I give the illusion of being able to do magic. Therefore, I do tricks, and I’m self aware enough to let the audience know that what I do is tricks. By then using the nodding for affirmation – Its almost a guaranteed okay. In fact the way it is worded you don’t always get an answer, you’ve been so direct that they usually see it as a rhetorical question, unless of course, like I said earlier they really don’t want to see any magic.

Many magicians like the idea of using money as ‘hook’ on the approach, or as a way to draw crowds. If it works for you, great. However, I think telling the audience that they can win money is immediately associated with conmen, salesman, losing money (rather than winning it) and gambling, not something that is so savory for most people, especially coming from somebody who they’ve never met and their first line of introduction is ‘Would you like to win some money?’ or similar. Asking the audience if they would like to win money, and then later proving it was impossible because you where a magician is an ugly ugly opening gambit, and one that can very rarely be done tastefully (although it can be done later, once you have established your character).

So the audience are thinking “who the hell is that guy?” and I’ve answered their question it in the first sentence, if they haven’t already worked it out, and even if they have worked it out, by affirming it, I’ve put them at ease. We would all be defensive if somebody came up to us and started doing something weird in our space without introduction; which would create two questions in the audiences mind – ‘Who the hell is that guy?” and “What the hell is he doing?”. By being straightforward and telling them I am the magician, and I’m going to show you a few quick tricks — I’m breaking down walls and associating what I do with the idea of entertainment, rather than the other lines that could make the audience defensive, such as invoking negative connotations with ‘Do you want to win some money?‘. I want to induce a feeling of a good time and bring a great atmosphere as soon as possible, by being direct it makes my goals so much easier by letting the audience know my motivations.

Like all good mysteries, I haven’t given away the whole game from the get-go. They might know what I doing, but they don’t know who I am. This gives me the ability to introduce myself on a non-personal level, then in a few seconds, introduce myself on a personal level, by shaking hands with each person I ask to help and saying ‘Hi I’m Matt’ and asking for their name if they don’t automatically tell me theirs, which I think lets them welcome me into their group, and then letting them come into my world.

I don’t like those sneaky lines such as “has anyone lost a knife?” as a way into go into a colour changing knife routine. But again, it might work for you and your personality. If you want one of these lines, why not try sleeving a deck of cards and pretending to pick them up, as you say “Excuse me, has anybody dropped a deck of cards? No? These must be mine then! … I’m the magician for tonight” as a quite funny line, then immediately letting them know who you are. Excuse me is a great way to get peoples attention (unless you look like a tramp) people quickly jump to attention if an authoritarian looking figure acknowledges a group with excuse me, as usually you’d think you are going to hear something important — but this attention will be quickly lost if the excuse me is directed towards something as trivial as ‘has anyone dropped a knife?,’ the I’m the magician for tonight line will hook them back in.

With all this said and done, the best tip for approaching a group is approaching your first group well. By selecting the group you think will be the most responsive, (a good group would be around 6-8 mainly female that are talking and enjoying themselves) and putting all your energy into this performance, to get the most reactions. Unless your in a huge room, the other guests will hear the applause and laughter and will look over to see what’s going on. I may deliberately milk the applause if I don’t think the applause from this group is loud enough at the end, to get other groups excited about what I’m doing. I will only have to do this applause milking once, and it will set up expectations from the other groups that; there is a magician, that the magician is good, they will enjoy it and clap just as much as what they’ve heard and hopefully if they’ve looked over, they know what I look like.

Doing it correctly from that start means that it won’t matter what you say later, as most of the time, by working extra hard with your first groups, I’ve found by that people invite me over to perform for their group, or as soon as I approach they will say ‘Oh great, your the magician’ or ‘I heard you where amazing’. It’s the first few groups that can set you up to have a fantastic evening of creating that amazing atmosphere we should all try to create.

I do appreciate if you are relying on magic for tips, that you might not want to propose any questions so they can okay your presence (or decline it), but if if in their minds they have ‘okayed’ your presence like in the way I mentioned above, you will more than likely get more tips, because they had a choice and they wanted you to be there.

*Some people have refused me and later after hearing other people enjoying it have invited me over. Some people genuinely don’t know what to expect, and don’t think they’ll like what they’ll see. By not being rude with them, but respecting their decision if they say no, and not giving the feeling of ‘your missing out, because I’m brilliant’ (unless of course they where rude!). If somebody does say no, I don’t say ‘If you change your mind just ask‘, I just say “That’s no problem – enjoy your evening.” Because I haven’t even given them the idea of changing their minds, if they do change their minds I have a lot of respect for them, because now they’ve asked for it its something that they want and will value, they are playing on my terms where it would have been visa-versa, and they are probably going to enjoy it a lot more.

Side note: After writing this, my friend James directed me towards Rune Klan’s opening line from his book ‘Runes World’ – His opening line is brilliant, its quite similar to mine, but it’s even more understated, check it out!

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