I remember I was booked to perform at a large award party many years ago. I was quite nervous about it. I knew my act was fine as I was going to use my set magic routines that were tried and tested at gigs over the years. However, it was the first time I had been booked for a central London awards event and was ‘out of my comfort zone’. Whenever I start working tables, I like to take a few moments to walk around and assess which ones look the most fun. I try to spot which groups seem deep in business conversations and look out for those that could do with some energy being added to them.
On this occasion, however, I was asked by the client to stay outside the room until each award was announced, then pop in and do a table, before exiting for each of the award announcements. Because of this, I didn’t scan the tables first and went straight up to the nearest table and started my set. It became instantly apparent that my choice was not a smart one. Half the table was talking on their phones and the other half were in deep discussion about the previous award. Most of the table stopped what they were doing and started to watch me, but several of the guests continued to talk on their phones and asked questions of the other guests through my routines. In the end they loved the magic, but I simply did not have control and finished that table deeply dissatisfied.
Let’s look at something I could have done to improve that situation and how magicians keep control:
When you perform magic tricks for a group, every moment is important if you want to keep control. The goal is to stop your audience’s minds from wandering.
To do this effectively you need to ‘play the audience’ and not allow them to ‘play you’. If your audience unconsciously feels (they do ‘feel’ as a group) that you are not in control of the situation, someone within that group will automatically adopt the ‘Alpha’ dominant position and take control of the group. That’s fine if it’s a person who loves magic tricks and is interested in keeping that as the focus of the group. However, if the dominant person wants the group’s attention for themselves or on another topic, your act can go downhill very fast.
Luckily, there are a few easy techniques can use to help maintain control of a group. Try out a few the next time you perform:
1) Magicians keep control by Looking at the group and seeing who’s boss
Try to spot the dominant ‘Alpha’ group member. He or she is probably already the focus of attention. Engage that person first of all. As you approach the table, make eye contact with that person as you introduce yourself. Privately, you are discreetly asking permission to take some of the attention away from the ‘boss of the table’ and by connecting with that person right from the start, you help let them know you recognize their position, respect it, and are happy to keep them in their position. This all goes unsaid, in a moment of eye contact, but the communication is there and you will be amazed at the difference this can make.
2) Magicians keep control by changing pace
If attention starts to wander, increase or decrease the energy of the routine you are performing. Decreasing the pace can work best if you feel a connection to the group reducing. I discovered this, while reading bedtime stories to my children, and then trying out the technique at the tables.
Slow right down, reduce the volume and pitch of your voice. This signals very loudly that something important is happening and spectators will snap to attention to see what’s going on. You can also switch suddenly to a more conversational style as you add in an anecdote, right in the middle of the routine. Keep it quick, it’s a sudden change of pace and will increase interest.
Remember that the goal is to change the pace. Just going too slowly through the whole routine is a sure fire way to switch your audience off. Aim to make your presentation style like a series of mountains and valleys. Building up, then dropping down, building up again and so on.
3) Be the captain of the ship
The moment you join a group, you want to appear totally in control. You may be starting out and secretly thinking you are out of your depth, but they don’t know that. To them you are a professional entertainer, and a magician. Assume that role totally. Act like the person you would like to be, and you become that person. Have a confident approach, make eye contact, give a big smile to one of the guests in the group and introduce yourself without hesitation.
Here are some behaviors that can signal insecurity to the group and should be avoided:
Pacing Around – Yes, I know it’s fashionable for comedians to do it on stage, but close up situations have different dynamics. Stand still. Move your arms but don’t shift around as it looks like you are unsure or nervous.
Sway or shift your weight from leg to leg. – It just makes you look submissive, unsure and uncomfortable. These are all associations you don’t want the group to have.
Keeping your hands in your pockets – It feels reassuring and casual for you, but not for your spectators.
4) Don’t respond to ‘calls for attention’
This is tricky for close-up magicians, after all, you have just entered the group and it’s their conversation you are joining. However, when you are half way through your routine and just about to get to the climax of the magic trick, when one of the spectators say’s “Excuse me” and asks a question. DON’T stop. Just ignore it and respond when YOU are ready to pay attention to the question. Obviously, if the question is “You are standing on my foot” that needs to be addressed right away, but you should be in control of the magic trick. It’s very easy for a conversation to start which destroys the pace and timing of your trick.
You have playing cards selected and suddenly the spectator starts tell you about a magician they met a while ago and how great his magic tricks were. Don’t be rude, but focus on the trick at hand, and continue with it. A quick “that’s cool” acknowledgment is fine, but there is plenty of time for you to chat about it after your act is over.
Learning how magicians keep control while performing is one of the most important skills to learn, once you have your working material mastered. It’s hard to develop just reading about it. Next time you show a group a magic trick, remember these points and try a few out. Most people don’t see live entertainment close up like this and don’t understand the social rules involved. You are officially there to entertain them. If you are aware of control within a group, you can make the experience of magic so much more enjoyable for them.
Do you have a question about showmanship? The team at the Merchant of Magic can give you advice on this subject and suggest further reading – You can call or email the team here
Whay other tips and techniques can help magicians keep control of a group? Please let us know your thoughts about this topic in the comments section below: