Hooks, Lines, and Thinkers
Through every moment of a routine your audience's interest is rising and falling. If it drains away, you're in trouble. Are you maintaining interest, attention, and creating a desire to see what happens next?
When it comes to magic shows, I’m an easy mark.
If I’m walking down the street and see a suitcase perched atop a drum stand, oh boy! That’s all I need. I’m in! This is clearly a live magic show, and I will stand there for an hour to watch it.
Any street performer worth their hat will tell you the real art is in gathering, and keeping, a crowd. It’s about convincing strangers, going about their daily lives, to drop everything, change plans, and watch you instead. I have huge respect for the pros who do this for a living.
Even if you perform in the most luxurious of settings, a ticketed show where people have made plans to come watch you, I’d say there’s still some convincing to do. While their physical body is already in the seat, you still need to stop their mind from wandering.
When you ask me to watch your magic trick you are asking me to give you my two most precious resources; my time and attention. It better be worth it.
I’m Ryan Pilling, this is Theory & Thoughts for Magicians.
Today, I’m going to tell you how to capture attention with your presentation, and keep your audience engaged right up until the final bow.
Does that sound like it’s worth your time?
I approach this topic less as a storyteller and more as an advertising copywriter. Stories can enthrall an audience once they are settled in to listen, but advertisements can stop them in their tracks.
Many magicians find themselves facing an audience who did not expect to see a magic show today. They’re at a restaurant, a trade show, a party. Or perhaps one magic fan brought a half-interested friend to your show. Like an advertiser, you need to get them to buy in to the idea.
There’s a formula for this, straight from the marketing textbook: Attention – Interest – Desire – Action.
First you get their Attention, then you raise their Interest, create Desire, and lead them to Action.
You’ll find these four elements in any good advertisement. Imagine flipping through the pages of your favourite magic magazine.
An ad grabs your attention with an eye-catching picture. Perhaps a magician standing in the middle of a crowd of adoring fans.
Attention is a mandatory first step, but also quickly fleeting. You can smash a plate to get attention for a moment. Directing attention to the next phase is key. The real hook is set when you catch a person’s interest.
The first line of the ad reads “Learn this one simple magic trick you can do to turn complete strangers into raving fans.”
Well, now you’ve really got my attention AND I’m interested to give you some time so I can hear what comes next.
Now that you’re hooked, it’s time to build up a sense of desire. This is really where the storytelling comes in. The ad might speak of a magician who was struggling, driving from lame gig to lame gig, until one day they discovered this secret which lead to a breakthrough in their life and career.
It’s really just layering on hook after hook until you’re so tangled up in the offer you aren’t going anywhere else.
Finally, once you’re convinced that you, too, need this in your life, comes the Action. The end of every advertisement tells you what you need to do. Call now, order here, send money. It’s the ultimate goal of all marketing, but it falls flat without the three steps leading up to it.
As a magical performer, the action I try to lead my audience to is a genuine round of applause, leaving the show feeling good, and sharing rave reviews with friends and strangers.
How can we magicians build up Attention, Interest, and Desire to bring them to that point?
Getting attention is usually easy. When you walk out on stage, or approach a group for close-up, people generally stop to see what you’ve got to say. You get the benefit of the doubt for a few seconds. It’s what you do next which determines if you deserve, and hold their attention.
You need to hook them.
What are the first words out of your mouth when you start a routine?
“Lemme show you a card trick” scores a zero on the hook-o-meter.
How about this line instead; “Would you like to learn how you can win big at your next poker game?” For the right audience, this sounds like a potential ten out of ten.
It might be the same trick, but offered up on a silver platter instead of a paper napkin.
With one line I’ve made a promise which captures attention, garners interest, creates a desire to hear more, and invites them to engage. People will lean in close, and say “heck yeah, I want to learn to win big!”
So long as I don’t stray from this promised path, I should easily keep their interest for the next few minutes.
Think long and hard about the first line of your script, for it will either attract or deter the attention of your audience for whatever comes next.
Here’s some ideas for lines which might have the crowd skooching forward in their seats for a better view:
“People used to wonder if magicians were in league with the devil. In a moment you will be certain of it.”
“Twelve magicians have died attempting this next stunt.”
“There was only one magic trick which fooled Albert Einstein.”
These lines are written to pique curiosity. To have the audience thinking “Oh, do go on! I want to hear more!”
For the record, catching attention like this is not restricted to verbal performances. If I walk out on stage holding a crystal wine glass in one hand, and a hammer in the other…
I bet you’re hooked, interested to see what happens next, and I didn’t say a word.
But that’s only the beginning.
Have you ever lost interest and stopped in the middle of a book, or movie?
Maybe the characters were unlikeable, or the pace was too slow. Ultimately, the reason to bail is you stopped caring about what might happen next.
Having a card chosen, then lost into the pack creates dramatic tension. “Will the magician find the card?” The audience wants to know, and they’ll stick around to find out.
To a point. I mean, the interest fades with each pile counted out onto the table. There is a limit to their patience and desire.
Picture each audience member holding a bucket, but all the buckets are full of holes.
You need to keep pouring in more interesting things, faster than it can leak out. Depending on the environment, and the individual, some buckets are holier than others.
Dead time is the enemy. If you’re not pouring something in, their attention is draining out.
Putting on safety goggles to do a card trick raises the interest level. People wonder “What’s going to happen next?”
You pull out a 4-foot-long butterfly net. “What’s going to happen next?”
Tossing the deck of cards into a wood chipper REALLY raises the interest. “What’s going to happen next?!?”
You need to think about how you can be supplying a constant drip feed of interesting moments. They can be delivered by your speech, your actions, the lighting, the music. Anything other than monotony.
I’ve seen far too many mentalism routines, in particular, which try to stretch a single dose of dramatic tension out over a 6 minute process.
If it’s too boring for too long, or the outcome becomes obvious, the curiosity fades. If they stop asking that question, if their bucket drains empty, they stop watching your show.
Throughout the routine you need to be pouring more and more into those buckets. Always maintaining that question in their minds. Building tension, building curiosity, building the desire to find out “what happens next?”
Finally, the call to action.
All the cards have been found, all hanging tension has been resolved, and hopefully the buckets are more full than when they started.
You’ve laid it all out for them but, just like marketing, if you want action, you need to ask for it.
Adult audiences are socially trained for appropriate responses, so it doesn’t take much prompting. However, if you want a solid, enthusiastic round of applause you need to give the cue.
Make it obvious that you’re done, and raise your arms as if to say “that’s it, that’s all I got! Nothing happens next.”
Now all that energy you invested in them, in raising their interest levels, is paid back. The more they have in their bucket, the louder the applause. If their buckets are spilling over, it might earn a standing ovation!
But again, this the easy part. Audiences want to show good performers their appreciation, and it comes naturally if you have maintained their interest.
It’s all about dangling hooks, and curating curiosity. Dare I say being interesting, is more important than being amazing.
And that has absolutely nothing to do with the magic trick.
That’s it. That’s all I got for this episode of Theory & Thoughts for Magicians. I truly appreciate you sharing your time and attention with me.
However, I hope I did not offer a satisfying conclusion. Oh no, rather than applause, my goal with these talks is to create far more questions than I answer. To leave you pondering in silence.
I’ll let you get to it.