“The first impulse of people is to believe.” Dr. Harlan Tarbell
The magician, stands center stage as various assistants enter and exit. Usually a
piece of exotic apparatus is introduced. The story line calls for the magician to don
a hood. He does so, as do his assistants. The magician grabs the leading lady by the
arm and places her, usually bound, into the apparatus and locks it shut. The
assistants make a great show of tying ropes around the box. Once the box is
thoroughly tied, the dancers strut around the stage. They turn the apparatus side-
to-side and end-to-end as the magician walks around the box. When the box stops
turning, the dancers prance around it. At an appropriately suspenseful moment, the
box is opened. Surprise! It’s empty. The magician takes his hood off. Surprise. It’s
the assistant. But where’s the magician? At this moment, the magician appears, to
the breathless amazement of the audience, at the back of the theater and run down
the center isle of the theater. He runs to the stage and receives a well deserved
round of applause.
Magicians and trainers: two artists with more in common than you might think. This
month and next I will explore the similarities between these two art forms and
identify the lessons magicians offer trainers as we focus on hocus pocus.
The First Illusion
We don’t know when the first human magic was performed any more than we know
who the first trainer was. We can however assume that the first “miracle worker” was
viewed with awe and wonder. In ancient times, conjurers were highly regarded as
communicators to gods, predictors of the future and advisors to kings. As humanity
grew to understand science, magic became a less relevant source of miracles. It
became instead what it should have been all along, an entertainment art form. Harry
Houdini delivered the death knell for magicians as miracle workers. After Houdini’s
mother died, Houdini attended séance after séance in a forlorn attempt to contact
her. Unfortunately for the mediums, their tambourine shakings, bell ringings, table
liftings and ghostly writings did not fool Houdini. He felt betrayed and conducted a
single-handed crusade that destroyed the mediums and completed the transition
from magician-as-miracle-worker to magician-as-entertainer.
Although trainers were never regarded as communicators to gods, they were once
upon a time regarded as miracle workers. All a manager had to do was send a
problematic employee to training and the trainer would work learning miracles. That
perception is long gone, along with the dot.com bubble. In today’s tighter times,
traditional training is often viewed as the equivalent of the medium with the ability
to do little more than rattle tambourines.
Magic and training both suffer what the psychologists call cognitive disconnect. We
are suspicious of magicians. The very word “illusion,” originally Latin, means “to
make fun of, and most people don’t like to play the fool. And yet magic’s lure
remains. We may have lost our belief in the divinity of magicians, but not the desire
to believe. We watch a fake, and knowing its fakeness, still fall for the illusion.
Magicians have responded to this disconnect by downplaying the trick. Granted,
magic is performed through trickery, but audiences rarely leave a magical
entertainment bragging about how well they were tricked. The trickery is a tool, not
an end in itself. People do not want to be tricked; they want to be entertained. And
yet, in order to entertain, the magician must manipulate.
In a similar vein, adults often enter the training environment full of suspicion.
Admitting the need to learn implies admitting a lack of completeness, in a strange
room, in front of strangers, to an instructor who can exert control over the trainee’s
fate. The trainer, like the magician, must present his or her art form to an often
suspicious audience who deep down inside want to learn. Like the magician, the
trainer must manipulate to teach.
When people watch magicians perform, they see the manipulation of cards, billiard
balls, silk handkerchiefs, and other paraphernalia. With trainers, they see the
manipulation of logistics, electronic media and classroom materials. There is a level
of manipulation that neither audience sees: the performer’s manipulation of the
audience. Consider the magician. The extraordinary effort that the magician puts
into directing the audience’s attention is hidden from view. The audience sees
magic: the magician sees deception. Likewise, the best trainer takes constant care
to hide the class mechanics from view so that the trainees can focus on learning.
The trainee sees illumination: the trainer sees controlled sequences. The trainer
must influence the trainee’s mind in order for learning to occur.
Both magician and trainer must use two fundamental principals to manipulate the
audience: direction and suggestion. The story that opened this article made
extensive use of both principals. Let’s look at that story again. Only this time, we
will examine the illusion from the magician’s point of view.
Hocus Pocus Refocused.
The magician, stands center stage as various assistants enter and exit.
The first time a spectator sees an assistant enter, they notice. They may even notice
the second entrance. But soon, the comings and goings become routine, and no
longer warrant attention. They become invisible. The magician directs attention
away from these entrances, suggesting their lack of importance.
Usually a piece of exotic apparatus is introduced.
The box is not the focus of this illusion, the upcoming switch is. By directing
attention towards the box, the magician directs the spectator’s attention away from
the various personnel on stage. The magician suggests the box is important. This
false focus makes the switch a total surprise.
The story line calls for the magician to don a hood. He does so, as do his assistants.
No magician wants to wear a hood. It’s hot, sweaty and unattractive. The nature of
this illusion is a switch, and a switch cannot occur if the magician is easy to spot on
stage. The magician dons a hood so that the switch can occur, but audience
knowledge of that purpose would telegraph the illusion. A story line that suggests a
logical explanation is invented for the hood.
The magician grabs the leading lady by the arm and places her, usually bound, into
the apparatus and locks it shut. The assistants make a great show of tying ropes
around the box.
The ropes are inconsequential as a barrier to escape, but important as a directing
tool. They play no role in the illusion, except to suggest that escape is impossible.
In addition, the rope by-play allows the leading lady time to escape her bonds, take
off her outer layer of clothes to reveal an assistant’s costume and hood, and slip out
a trap door in the back of the box. As the last of the ropes are tied, the leading lady,
now dressed as an assistant, exits stage left with the other assistants, who are by
now not important enough to watch, as the hooded magician directs attention to
him by walking towards the audience.
Once the box is thoroughly tied, the dancers strut around the stage. They turn the
apparatus side-to-side and end-to-end as the magician walks around the box.
With all the whirling, twirling, circling, and strutting, it is had for the spectator to
remain focused on the critical details. There is just too much stimuli directed at
them. At this point, while the spectators are in stimuli overload, the magician boldly
walks toward the wings.
When the box stops turning, the dancers prance around it.
The alluring dancers direct attention away from the magician, who, having reached
the wings, exits stage left. At that precise moment, the dancers execute their most
provocative dance step. Almost immediately, the leading lady enters from the exact
area where the magician exited, and by manner of walk and attitude, suggests that
she is the magician.
At an appropriately suspenseful moment, the box is opened. Surprise. It’s empty.
The magician takes his hood off. Surprise. It’s the assistant.
The suggestion is that the switch occurred at that instant. Of course, the switch is
minutes old, but, because the magician purposely directed their attention away from
the critical events, the spectators completely missed it. They now begin focusing on
possible solutions for the switch, but it is too late. The trail has already gone cold.
Besides which, their attention is about to be directed away from the puzzle with an
even more enticing stimulus.
But where’s the magician? At this moment, the magician appears, to the breathless
amazement of the audience, at the back of the theater and run down the center isle
of the theater. He runs to the stage and receives a well deserved round of applause.
To the spectator, the switch is made all the more miraculous by the appearance of
the magician at the back of the theater. The unstated suggestion is that the
magician has just now magically appeared at the back of the theater. A closer look
would reveal his fast breathing. For, he has just run all the way around the theater.
But the magician isn’t the only one gasping for air. The audience has been left
What seemed like a true miracle was accomplished through direction and
suggestion. We will overview each of these fundamental principals in turn, and
examine the ways they relate to the learning environment.
To create magic, magicians must bend the laws of nature. Or rather they must seem
to bend the laws of nature. Control isn’t necessary; the appearance of control is
enough. That appearance of control comes from directing the audience’s attention
away from items that would destroy the illusion, and towards those that reinforce it.
Direction can take many forms but is invariably a physical action: a nod, a gesture, a
change in posture, or a verbal statement.
To foster learning, trainers must also control the environment. Bulgarian
psychotherapist Dr. Giorgi Lozanov, the father of Accelerated Learning theory,
believed that adult suspicions about the classroom block learning. He viewed joyful
direction on the part of the instructor, one in which the instructor positively directs
the trainees toward the learning goal and away from negative behaviors, as critical
And old training saying suggests trainers should “tell them what you’re going to tell
them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” Magicians tell the audience
what the magician wants them to see, tells them what they should be seeing, and
then tells them what they just saw. Where trainers direct attention towards positive
learning outcomes, magicians misdirect attention away from truth.
A simple example is the magician’s statement, “Nothing up my sleeve.” This is an
intentional ploy. Calling attention to the obvious preempts future “It was up his
sleeve” comments. It also gives the audience something irrelevant to think about,
thus pulling their attention away from the bulge in the magician’s pocket, or in the
case of the switch, away from the critical events of the illusion.
Attention was directed towards the box, and away from the assistants. The hoods
were explained in the story. Because no extra attention was paid to them, they
seemed unimportant. The attention placed on the tightness of the ropes implied
importance when there is none, and stalled for time while the assistant changed
clothes and slipped through the trap door. The alluring dance steps directed
attention away from the switch. The appearance of the magician at the back of the
theater directed attention away from the true secret of the illusion. All these events
were planned to control what the audience saw. Without this direction, the illusion
could not have happened.
In a similar fashion, every stimulus in the learning environment sends a message
about the value of the training. The savvy trainer orchestrates all those stimuli so as
to direct attention towards the learning goal.
The second of our two fundamentals is suggestion. Where direction is often a
physical, via gestures, posture, and verbal statements, suggestion is the art of
implication. Dariel Fitzee Explained suggestion as “… A subtle but positive act of
putting something into the mind of the spectator.”
This definition parallels Giorgi Lozanov’s comments about Suggestopedia. Lozanov’s
defined suggestion as:
“A constant communicative factor which chiefly through paraconscious mental
activity can create conditions for tapping the functional reserve capacities.”
Lozanov believed that adults bring personal learning barriers into the classroom
with them, and that facilitators should create an aura of joyfulness and then use that
aura to suggest positive learning outcomes.
In the Hocus Pocus switch example, the magician employed several suggestions:
• The comings and goings of the assistants were not important
• The box was a major focus of the illusion
• Hoods needed to be worn because of the story
• Ropes make escape from the box impossible
• The hooded assistant was the magician
• The switch occurred in an instant
• The magician magically appeared at the back of the theater
Each of these suggestions was false, but was accepted as true by the audience.
In the learning environment, the trainer offers several suggestions that aid learning:
• The subject to be learned is critical to job success or personal or professional
• The time spent together will be well spent
• The subject is not too difficult to learn
• Anyone who applies themselves can learn the material
• The class will be an enjoyable experience
These suggestions can be critical to classroom success. Suggestion calms the
anxious right hemisphere, creating positive emotion. The end result is a more
attentive brain. Regardless of the field, be it magic, vocal performance, or
instruction, the goal and the technique for reaching that goal is the same. Subtle,
positive, focused suggestion that creates an atmosphere of trust.
Acceptance of Manipulation
Finally, we come to the trust required for acceptance of direction and suggestion.
For, if the audience believes that the magician or trainer does not have their own
benefit at heart, direction and suggestion are doomed to fail. The audience
subconsciously condones and willingly accepts the manipulation as long as two
factors remain in place:
• The manipulation must be clearly for the audience’s benefit
• The audience must not be reminded of the manipulation
The manipulation must be clearly for the audience’s benefit
Magicians place great emphasis on communicating benevolence to the audience.
They suggest supernatural powers but with their tongues firmly planted in their
cheeks. They present their illusions as harmless concoctions for the audiences’
enjoyment. And the audience, knowing the intent is pleasurable emotion, allow
themselves to be fooled.
Trainers also communicate benevolence. Trainees who mistrust the trainer will not
engage in the learning. Trainees allow themselves to be controlled as long as they
trust the trainer. The moment they suspect the trainer is more concerned with his or
her ego then with their benefit, the level of trust plunges.
The instructor must additionally focus the learners on the subject at hand, keep the
focus on the subject throughout the learning process, and create an environment in
which the learners amaze themselves with what they have learned. Instruction is
manipulation for the learner’s benefit.
The audience must not be reminded of the manipulation
A willingness to be manipulated is not the same as a conscious awareness of that
manipulation. Audiences and trainees will only accept manipulation if they are not
consciously aware of it.
In order to manipulate the audience without calling attention to that manipulation,
suggestion must be employed. The audience’s reluctance to be tricked, and the
learner’s reluctance to be coerced, dictates the need for suggestion. Both Fitzee and
Lozanov felt that dictates would be doomed to failure. Fitzee stated:
“It is utterly impossible to force the spectator’s reason or judgment directly. The
spectator must believe he has made his own decision [original emphasis]. This
makes it necessary for the magician to use inducement rather than persuasion.”
If you reread that quote with the classroom in mind, you can easily see the parallel:
“It is utterly impossible to force a class to participate directly. The trainee must
believe he has made his own decision to learn. This makes it necessary for the
trainer to use inducement rather than persuasion.”
With these comparisons between magicians and trainers in mind, we will next turn
our attention to the placement of magic in the learning environment. Next month’s
article, Hocus Pocus Focus Part 2 will focus on four applications of magic in the
To Be Continued in Hocus Pocus Part 2
Visit Lenn on line at www.offbeattraining.com
Lenn Millbower, BM, MA, the Learnertainment® Trainer is an expert in applying
show biz techniques to learning. He is the author of the ASTD Info-Line, Music as a
Training Tool, focused on the practical application of music to learning; Show Biz
Training, the definitive book on the application of entertainment industry
techniques to training; Cartoons for Trainers, a popular collection of 75 cartoons for
learning; Game Show Themes for Trainers, a best-selling CD of original learning
game music; and Training with a Beat: The Teaching Power of Music, the foremost
book on the application of music to learning. Lenn is an in-demand speaker, with
successful presentations at ASTD 1999-2005 and SHRM 2006; a creative and
dynamic instructional designer and facilitator formally with the Disney University
and Disney Institute; an accomplished arranger-composer skilled in the
psychological application of music to learning; a popular comedian, magician and
musician; and the president of Offbeat Training®, infusing entertainment-based
techniques into learning to keep ‘em awake!