Building Your Crowd

On Saturday night I was booked to do an outdoor pre-fireworks magic and circus show by a school. It was dark, freezing cold and the forecast promised rain half way through my show. I had one floodlight off to one side so I had some lighting, but not great.

By the time I had set up there were a few people milling around looking chilly. I was competing with hot dogs in the warm school canteen and bouncy castles in the sports hall.

I knew that I had straitjacket escapology and fire eating up my sleeve, but I had to get an audience first.

Confidence from Experience

I have done enough shows to know that I had a fighting chance of success, even though a large part of me wanted to go into the warm canteen for a hot dog and forget about the whole thing!

In these situations one has to build a crowd from scratch. I learned all my crowd-building techniques years ago from travelling down to London and sitting and watching the street entertainers in Covent Garden. It is an art, but it is learnable. The more you do it, the more confident you get.

Building Rapport

I started off by doing 15 minutes walking around the crowd on stilts, chatting to people and doing small magic tricks for them, with the promise of a dangerous magic and juggling show to follow. Building rapport and curiosity.

By doing this I managed to get about eight people to form the nucleus of my initial crowd. I put on some loud music and did an announcement over my PA system. Another four people arrived as a result, I had just enough for the next step.

From here on it was textbook Covent Garden.

A bit of banter and improv with those that are there: one-to-one interaction, make them feel special. 

Get Your Friends to Help

I then explained to the audience that I needed their help to build a bigger crowd. They liked me by now so they wanted to help me. I explained that I would run on and they had to give me the loudest clap and cheer that they could. This caused interest in those who were a little way off and they came to see what was going on. 

Then I did the first couple of bits of material, using volunteers, and getting a huge round of applause for the volunteers, building the crowd all the time. 

On to the first big trick – the straitjacket and chain escapology – again using two volunteers to chain me up. Lots of banter and improv and laughs. By this time the crowd is growing naturally – who doesn’t want to go and see what all the laughter is about?

Tipping Point

At some point there is a tipping point and you don’t have to consciously crowd-build any more, you just have to be funny, magical and entertaining. By the time I got to the fire juggling and fire eating there must have been 60 people watching and an amazing atmosphere. 


What About Your Show?

What has this got to do with work and life in general?

Whenever you start a new project you feel like you are on your own. But you are probably not. You may well have friends, family and some contacts from various points in your life. Some of them may at least be interested in following your progress at this stage. 

You can build on this initial interest by social media posts and face-to-face networking.
You can afford to make all you interactions highly personalised at the start because you are actually creating a committed core crowd of supporters who will then be willing to help you in the next stages. 

Do people favours, make them feel special. They will then want to return the favours later on to help you to build a bigger crowd.

Keep Trying, It Will Happen!

Just like with building a street-show crowd, it can feel like you stand no chance. But, the more experience you get, the more you will realise that you will probably have some kind of success. You just have to believe that you have something good to offer and then keep trying. If one approach doesn’t work for one person, try something a bit different.

At certain points you can ask your core crowd to help you build a bigger crowd.

It’s all an art, not a science, but you get better at it with practice.

At some point you will reach a tipping point and you just have to concentrate on doing good stuff, you don’t have to worry about building the crowd any more.

Iterative Persistence

Improving the Odds

If you shuffle a pack of cards and then cut to a card without showing me I have only a 1 in 52 chance of guessing the card.

However, I can improve my odds.

If I ask you a series of questions – and you answer truthfully – I can narrow down my options:
Red or black? Narrows it down to 26 cards.
Hearts or diamonds? Down to 13.
Picture or number? Either 3 or 11 cards.

If I found it was a picture card then I could just ask up to two more questions (Jack? Queen?) and I would have my answer.

Obviously, if I added a bit of magician’s skullduggery I could get the answer without asking any questions at all!

Does This Work?

Asking a question, learning from it and then asking a follow up question informed by the answer increases our focus and chance of future success. If you throw in a bit of skill and experience as well then you can get there even more quickly.

Every time you try something in your life or work you are effectively asking the question: “Does this work?”

The secret to growing and developing is to listen carefully to the answer, learn from it and then modify your actions accordingly the next time you try.

Steering Wheels

Obviously we are unlikely to get it right first time. But we are also unlikely to make mistakes without learning. In fact, making mistakes is an essential part of learning. 
If we are so afraid or failing that we never try, we will never learn and we will never grow.

As has been said many times before, it is easier to turn the wheel on a moving car.

Potters’ Wheels

I read a great story in Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed  (#ad) :

Two groups of students were asked to make pots. They had never made pots before. One group was told that they would receive credit for the sheer number of pots produced. The other group was told that they would receive credit for the quality of the pot, even if they only produced one.

The results were fascinating and informative. The “numbers” group produced an incredible amount of pots. In addition, the last pots they produced were of incredible quality because they had learned how to do it through making mistakes.

By contrast, the “quality” group failed to produce a single pot in the given time because they were so afraid of producing something sub-standard.

Done is better than perfect, but aim to do it better each time.

Oopses and What-ifs

I saw a great quote from Beau Taplin the other day contrasting mistakes and regrets: ”Better an oops than a what if.”  

A regret is something you did that you don’t want to remember, or something that could have done but didn’t. A mistake is something that you remember, learn from and therefore value.

Our digital world is perfect for trying stuff, failing quickly and trying the next iteration. Short attention spans, mass distribution and rapid communication are actually an advantage when it comes to trying stuff out.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; expect to make them, and value them.

Fail, learn, modify, repeat… and grow.