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The Art of Misdirection

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The collection of psychological and practical techniques known collectively as 'Misdirection'are essential to making magic tricks work. It doesn't matter if you bought some all-singing-all-dancing gizmo from a magic store, if you're using playing cards or just trying a simple coin vanish - if you don't know how to direct and misdirect your audience's attention, even if you are technically proficient in every other way, you will not have magic. Misdirection is what makes magic work.


Okay, so what is it?

Misdirection is not so much about distracting your audience's attention whilst you do some quick move you hope they don't see. It's more about guiding their attention to what you do want them to see. I remember my first 'Magic Set' that I got one christmas as a boy. There was a vanishing dice routine and at one point in the instructions it was written 'when no-one is looking, quickly drop one of the dice into your pocket'! Well for one thing, if no-one is looking what's the point of doing the trick? No, the real art of misdirection is about controlling and guiding your audience's attention to where you want it to be. Controlling and guiding your audience's attention to where you want it to be. Yes, I said that twice because it's something you really must understand and never forget if you want to make magic tricks work for you.

This series of psychological techniques are the REAL SECRET of all magic. And they are very powerful. They are so powerful that they even work if you explain to your audience what you are doing!(take Penn and Teller or Derren Brown as examples) Having said that, mere mortals would do well not to reveal these things during a performance!

Okay, so how do you control and guide your audience's attention without them knowing that they are having their minds manipulated? How do you get them to do exactly what you want them to do even when they are watching you like hawks, trying to catch you out? Once you have understood the psychological arts of misdirection you will welcome even this 'hot' attention because you will know how to use it. So, these are the first four techniques you need to master (in Misdirection: Part Two we will look at the more advanced techniques):

The Four Basic Techniques of Misdirection

1. Your eyes are your most powerful asset.
- Yes, your eyes. Not your hands, not your $150 "secrets revealed" DVD and certainly not your plastic thumb tip! Your eyes. It's a simple fact that if you are communicating with someone and you look at something (off to the left, at your right hand, up to the ceiling) they will look there, too. Maybe only for a split second, but I guarantee that look they will. It's a psychological law. People cannot help it.

So use your eyes to guide your audience's attention. If you want them to look at something, go right ahead and look at it yourself. If you want them NOT to look at something, just make sure you don't look at it! So, you know, look at the hand that doesn't have the sponge ball in it and don't look at the one that does!

Very few people can resist eye contact. If you look someone in the eye, they will look you in the eye. Human vision actually has a very narrow scope of focus. If you are having someone look you in the eye (which you do by looking them in the eye) and you are holding your hands between your waist and chest, those hands will be nothing but a blur to your spectator. Catch his eye for a fraction of a second and you can do your move. He won't notice. What's more, because his response was so natural and so brief, he won't even realise he took his eyes off your hands.

2. Your audience's curiosity works to your advantage.
- Show your audience something they didn't see before. They will look at it. While they are looking at it, they are not seeing whatever else it is you are up to. A classic example, of course, is waving a magic wand. A favourite of mine is to pull a coloured silk out of my pocket and give it a little shake (if you are in an informal situation and you want this to look entirely natural, just use your regular hanky). Everybody looks at the new object in the field of vision. If it's a silk there's also a raising of expectation, but I then just pretend to blow my nose on it and put it away again. Sometimes that raises a smile. But it always, effortlessly, naturally, directs the audience's attention away from the fact that I've just ditched a coin or switched a card or palmed a sponge ball or whatever.

Don't forget that an empty hand or an assistant from the audience can be your object. it is enough that you seem to give your attention to it and your audience will follow you.

3. Big moves hide little moves.
- Simple this one, but never to be forgotten. Let's say you have a coin in your palm, clearly displayed for everyone to see. You want to make it visibly vanish right in front of their eyes. So you are going to do Bobo's wrist palm. It's a subtle move but it does involve just a quick forward motion of the hand. Now that little movement could easily give away that some trickery is afoot. You need it to seem that the hand remains motionless. So what do you do? You wave your other hand over the top, or you waggle your fingers above the palm. No need to hide the coin. The audience will flick their eyes to the bigger motion and in that same instant you do Bobo's wrist palm. When they look back, the coin is gone. The whole thing takes a fraction of a second and from the audience's perception they SAW the coin vanish. That bigger move concealed the smaller one. All they saw was a coin that was there one minute and gone the next! There are many ways to apply this principle.

4. Magic words.
- Now I don't mean Abracadabra! What I mean is that you can use what you say to direct your audience's attention. There are many ways to do this. If you are using a storytelling type patter that links several tricks together the narrative logic of the story will be stronger to the audience than critical thinking, especially with a juvenile audience. If the sponge ball is called Sam and he's sad so he goes to hide in the cave they are not going to question the fact that he is in there (the cave being your other hand, where of course he isn't, because you've ditched him and got the golden ball he is about to become ready palmed...)

Another way of using words is to ask your audience a question, to think of a number, to tell you if the lady next to him is his wife, whatever: anything that makes him have to think in order to respond will draw his attention away from you and your moves. The added advantage is that everyone else's attention will be on him, too, to enjoy his embarassment or find out what he's going to say.

One of the best ways of all to use words in magic is to tell a joke, say something funny. While people are laughing their critical faculties are practically zeroed. It's a neurological fact that you cannot think and laugh at the same time!

You can also simply tell the audience that something is happening which isn't. "I take the ball from the table and put it in my pocket" would be something of a classic example. You tell them that you are taking the ball from the table and putting it in your pocket and you go through the motions of this but you don't put it in there, you retain it. Basically, you are lying! You can make this more powerful still by hiding your lie behind a smokescreen of truth. "This is the card you just chose (true). I'm putting it on the top of the deck (true). I'm splitting the deck (true) and putting your card in the middle (not true)." The truths lull them into believing the lie. So when their card is drawn to the top of the deck, or appears in the sealed envelope or whatever, they are astonished because they KNOW it was in the middle of the deck...

Going deeper in Part Two
- Well, that's quite a lot to learn and all essential to master. You have to be brave with this, there's only so far you can go without people watching you! Once you've mastered all your physical techniques, think through how you will use misdirection in your routine and then - get out there and try it out! You are bound to make mistakes if you're a beginner. Don't worry, just learn from them. You will get better. And after a while it will become second nature to you and you'll do everything without even thinking.

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