The real work isn’t only in the sleights. It’s in your scripts, your presentation, your demeanor — everything. Ollie Mealing, the creator of Control and Recoil, knows this firsthand. The experience he’s built through performing for corporate clients and working with Derren Brown has given him a sharp focus on all of those points. In this post, Ollie looks at the first impression, the moment that happens long before you get a chance to do a single trick. (photo credit Benji Taylor)
I believe to best achieve an aim, you must consider every contributing step. The subject of expectation is a prime example. By considering the path and process a thought takes, we can intervene along the way and plant tactical seeds to encourage the desired expectation.
With that in mind, those first few precious seconds between performer and audience have always interested me. Upon first glance they’re trivial, forgotten moments, but upon closer examination they provide a foundation for either success or failure — by instilling an impression and consequently an expectation.
To understand how to influence an expectation to our greatest advantage, we first need to understand which factors contribute towards building an impression, of which there’s many. Inherently all these factors fall under appearance — the way you’re dressed, your body language, facial expression, hygiene, the way you talk, the words you use, if/how you shake their hand, if you’re holding anything — in fact anything sensible serves to form a mental image in the audiences mind. Understanding the messages (or subtext) these factors carry allows you to modify each one to ensure you are perceived as you both wish and require — not every situation will warrant the the same impression.
So now let’s consider the expectations generated by these impressions. I feel that ultimately they fall into two categories: positive and negative.
Positive position is powerful
If your audience members are congenial towards the impression you create, their expectation becomes positive, because they have confidence in your abilities, leading to a relaxed performance which is enjoyed by both parties. If on the other hand their impression of you is lousy, then their expectation becomes negative, because they doubt your abilities, leading to a tense performance which generally feels like a waste of everyone’s time.
Sadly it can only take one person to have a negative expectation to spoil the potential enjoyment for all, so ensuring everyone has a positive expectation is crucial for maximizing the impact of your performance.
When constructing your appearance/impression, I believe one of the most important messages to incorporate within the subtext is confidence. If your appearance echoes confidence (but not overbearingly), you remove doubt/tension from their thoughts, naturally leaving a confident impression and in turn a positive expectation — which is of course the desired outcome.
Confidence hides negativity. Think of it as a mask.
Why should we strive for a positive response? When the expectation is positive, you have gained their acceptance and confidence, the will to watch your performance allows many other desirable facets to come in to play, notably through relaxation. Without tension, audience and performer can create synergy. Pacing isn’t compromised, the performance can feel personal and the mood is able to be controlled, all of which are important for surfacing a strong emotion/reaction out of your audience. That’s vital for impact and memorability.
Counterintuitively, excitement can also play a profitable role in building relaxation and rapport. The more excited they are to see you perform, the more eager they are for participation, which can create a bizarre yet fantastically beneficial moment of role reversal where they’re now adopting a charming demeanour to entice your approval, unwittingly destroying any tension and giving you the perfect platform to perform. In this situation, played sensitively, you can provoke behaviour which they think will make you feel more welcome, allowing you to prepare for some very special moments indeed. (I may revisit this idea more deeply in a future post.)
Negativity starts a circle
When the expectation is negative, you can of course still redeem the situation. But this will naturally take a lot more effort, and that runs the risk of displaying tension — thus further instilling a negative impression/expectation, creating a vicious circle.
An important point to remember is that a negative expectation might not necessarily be related to the impression you instil. There can be many other reasons outside of your control why someone might show disinterest — you never know what else could be going on in their mind. Knowing if their disinterest is related to your impression, ignorance or preoccupation isn’t easily discernible, but I feel a worthy point to consider nonetheless.
A neat trick to overcome a negative impression is to learn the client’s name (we’ll imagine it’s Bob) and upon introducing yourself to a participant, say “Bob told me that you’d love what I’m doing here…” This credibility helps to remove doubt, and the open-endedness of this statement motivates a reply that will increase rapport.
Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys watching a magician and are too stubborn for persuasion. How to manage such an encounter is a blog post in itself. I will add, though, that controlling the environment can help immensely (my previous post has more on this).
Performers make first impressions, too
Uncontrollably, we all make first impressions and consequent expectations/judgments within seconds of meeting someone. The danger of this intuitive response is forming a misjudged impression, preventing us from recognizing potential. This is an important thought to remember, because it reminds us that it’s not just the audience who forms impressions but also us, the performers.
We must be careful to remain open minded when meeting new participants – if we ourselves falsely deduce a negative impression (because first impressions are so susceptible to error) then that thought alone can immediately telegraph negative signals to the participant instilling disadvantageous tension. This is why confidence is key, it not only supports your ability but reassures the audience that you have (equally as important) accepted them – even if your negative impression is continually reinforced, don’t remove the mask.
One final thought is predisposition. If your audience have already been predisposed to a different magician, then would you say creating a positive expectation is made more easy or difficult? I’ll allow you to ponder that one — the answers have much value.
As well as divulging some insight into expectation, I hope this post has inspired you to consider your aims as structures — a chain of events/foundations which can be modified to increase the desired outcome. Another thought I’ve tried to flag up is subtext — the messages your actions communicate and the consequent thoughts they trigger. In my mind this is essential for strong, effective magic, allowing the audience to think they’re thinking for themselves.