I have been working as a close-up magician for the last 25 years. I have entertained at thousands of events – hundreds of tables at weddings, corporate parties and significant birthdays.
At the same time, in the other half of my life, I have led and been a member of several teams. Recently, I have been interviewing many other team leaders about their experiences and challenges. Many thanks if you are one of them!
I have observed that many of the challenges facing a close-up magician approaching a table of guests are very similar to those facing team leaders. I have also realised that the MAGIC formula may be applied in both situations.
We have been around our imaginary wedding table and met all the characters. We have seen each personality’s unique challenges and how a magician might react in each case.
In the next few posts, I would like to make some general observations from working with the table as a whole to gain some valuable insights for team leaders.
Lift Them Up
As a magician, the first lesson for me is that it is all about the audience. They are the most important, I am there to serve them, and I need to do all I can to lift them up.
Likewise, as team leaders, our most important job is to serve our teams.
How might we do this?
Working through the MAGIC formula:
Move: I need to make my audience feel something. Most of the time, it will be most beneficial to stimulate positive feelings. As a performer, I want them to feel amazed, intrigued, excited and mystified, but I also want them to feel comfortable and relaxed. I might need some help from an audience member at some point, in which case I want them to feel confident in me and brave enough to take the risk of taking part.
Very occasionally, I might want to make the audience feel uncomfortable as part of the dramatic flow of a routine, e.g., by making them think that I have screwed up a trick and leaving an awkward silence. But I only want to do this if I know the situation will be temporary and quickly resolved and that the feeling of discomfort will only serve to heighten the effect that follows.
It is similar when leading a team. As a leader, you want your team members to feel comfortable and confident working with you and with each other. You want them to be energised, confident and excited. Occasionally you might want to throw in a bit of discomfort as a motivator, as long as you can also show that there is a way out by you all working together and triumphing somehow.
Attune: Magic at tables works best when you correctly judge the mood and characters of the table and tailor your presentation and routine to seamlessly start from that point.
In the same way, as a team leader, you will find it much easier if you can attune to the character and mood of your team members, both individually and as a group.
When performing magic, I have to work with the audience I have, not the audience I wish I had. As a team leader, I have to work with the team I have, not the team I wish I had. If you get it right, your actual team may eventually become very similar to your ideal team.
Give: One of the founders of The Magic Circle, David Devant, once coined the phrase “All done by kindness”. This saying is much loved by magicians and a great mantra for life and leadership in general.
When performing at a wedding table, I need to provide an experience that the guests could not have had without me being there. My role is to give them something that will stick in their memories with good feelings, maybe cause them to think a little differently about magicians, their lives and their fellow humans. This might sound a little grand for a magic performance, but I have had enough chats with audience members to know that it is possible. At the very least, I can aim to give everyone a positive and enjoyable time.
How and what can you give to your team members as a team leader? I would suggest, for starters, encouragement, fun, opportunities to learn and grow, information and your time.
Inspire: I want to leave my audience with a slightly different view of the world, one that will cause them to act differently, if only slightly. Maybe this will simply be in their reaction to future magic performances? Perhaps it will be in their thinking about how the human mind works or how different people see things in different ways? Maybe they will want to go and learn some magic tricks themselves?
How can you inspire your team? What do you want them to want to do as a result of interacting with you? It is worth considering that you will inspire them to act in one way or another no matter what you do! This might be positive or negative. It is more likely to be positive if you are intentional about it. Spend some time thinking about how you would like to be inspiring your team and how you might be able to go about it in your actions, encouragement and general dealings with them.
Connect: The more successfully I can connect with an audience and individual audience members, the better the resulting performance will be. It is exactly the same with team members. Time spent one-to-one with team members or in building relationships with the whole group will never be wasted.
How can you serve your team?
How can you lift them up?
I am writing a book about using The MAGIC Formula to manage yourself, particularly if you work from home.
If you are a freelancer, self-employed, or work from home in another capacity, I would love to talk to you.
As I outlined in my introductory blog post on this topic, sales meetings and kids parties are very similar because you have to:
perform fresh and energetic after a long car journey
attune to your audience
have clarity about what the client needs
I Like Driving in my Car
Let’s deal with the long car journey.
In his funny and perceptive book “Where Do Comedians Go When They Die?” (#ad) comedian Milton Jones wryly observed that comedians are basically professional drivers who do occasional entertainment spots. I laughed out loud when I read that, it rings so true for magicians too. And for sales reps.
So, what are my secrets for arriving and performing fresh?
Leave enough time
Eat and drink well
Have a good final preparation routine
Leave enough time. Do not assume ideal traffic and time your arrival to be 15 minutes before your start time. That way lies huge stress.
Be an Early Bird, Get the Worm
When I do a kids party I knock on the door 30 minutes before my slot starts. I say hello, check out the room and then get set up.
However, I time my arrival to be another 30 minutes earlier than that, ie one hour before my start time. I have a ten minute power nap around the corner, a hot drink from my flask, put on my bow tie, waistcoat and top hat and do my final preparations. Who’s party is it? How old are they? What is mum’s name?
I use Google maps for planning journey times and Waze as my satnav. I check the time Google maps timing and then add 45 minutes to allow for a breaks and traffic problems. Most of the time this ensures that I arrive at least an hour early, but if there is a big hold-up I have plenty of margin. I once had a blow-out on the A40 out of Oxford on the way to a kids party in South East London. I called the RAC, waited half an hour, they came and changed the wheel and I still arrived at the party ten minutes before the start time.
These days, arriving extra early is not a problem. I whip out my laptop and tether it to my mobile internet and I can do a bit of admin.
Arriving at a sales appointment 30 minutes early would be a bit strange, but the same principles apply. A military friend of mine told me that they were trained to arrive for appointments precisely nine minutes before the start time. Not too early to be awkward, but enough to reassure the other person.
Food, Glorious Food
Eating on the road is an important but often overlooked issue. In my twenties I fuelled my weekends of London kids parties with Ginsters pasties, Red Bull and Mars Bars. I was blessed with a fast metabolism and could eat anything. I was warned that this would change when I reached 30. However, I sailed past 30 and nothing happened. I was convinced I was special! Then I hit 33 and it hit me, not so special after all…
These days I have switched to healthy M&S or Waitrose salads (depending on the service station!), apples and redbush tea from a flask. I didn’t make these switches all at once, my on-the-road diet has evolved over time. I feel much better and have more energy. And I think it helps to keep me looking at least a little bit showbiz!
My advice – avoid the fried chicken, burgers and pasties, even though they are the most popular outlets at any service station.
The Final Countdown
Do all you can to avoid your final prep routine consisting of frantically searching for a parking space and sprinting to the appointment.
If you leave enough time you can have a refreshing power nap and a hot drink. You can run through what you need to know and mentally prepare yourself. If you need energising you can listen to some suitable music – I tend to use heavy rock – and dance around in your driving seat like a loon for a couple of minutes.
Believe me, this final prep routine makes all the difference. You owe it to yourself and to your clients/ prospects.
In my next post we will get out of the car and look at attuning to those we are working with.
You have a two hour drizzly drive through bad traffic. Then you have to go in and present to your clients. First impressions count for everything so you have to look and sound good.
Then you have to make sure you have attuned to your client, got on their wavelength, established a rapport. During your appointment you are certain to experience some knockbacks – criticisms, things that don’t go to plan, awkward moments. How will you deal with those?
And, essentially, you have to establish exactly what it is that the client needs and what you can provide to satisfy them. It may well not be what they think they need.
All this sounds like I am describing a sales meeting. I could well be, but actually I am describing an experienced children’s entertainer arriving and performing at a kid’s party.
As a magician and juggler, I have been entertaining at kids parties for 25 years. There is not much I haven’t encountered, not much will surprise me, not much I can’t cope with.
At the outset, working from the car, stopping at service stations, laptop and mobile use when parked up to do a bit of admin and book the next appointments. All very familiar territory.
Over the years I have discovered how to knock on the door looking and feeling fresh, energetic and ready to go rather than exhausted and frustrated from the journey. It all has to do with time management, good nutrition and sleep. Leave enough time so that you have a break half way. Don’t have a burger for lunch, have an M&S salad. Arrive 30 minutes early, have a ten minute nap in the car and then quickly do your final prep before you go into the meeting. If necessary play some ACDC loud on the stereo to get you buzzing, I recommend Thunderstruck 🙂
Trust me, it works!
It’s as Simple as ABC
Pink suggests that successful sales people need to follow a basic ABC formula:
A – Attune. Get on the same wavelength as your client, work out how they tick, establish a rapport.
B – Buoyancy. Learn how to bounce back and continue enthusiastically when faced with knockbacks, criticisms and the unexpected.
C – Clarity. Establish exactly what it is that the client needs. This is done by working out which are the right questions to ask. Very often the client might think they know what they need, but by asking the right question(s) you can establish that they actually need something slightly different.
All these are true for both sales meetings and kids parties. I will explore them further over the next few blog entries.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
I sometimes look at successful magicians on stage, on TV or posting their latest jet-set corporate gig on social media and think, “That could never be me.”
But why not?
How are they really different to me? I know I can stand on stage, I know I can perform, I know I can learn routines. So what is getting in my way of being just like them? Well, first I need to work out if I really want to do that kind of work – Behind the glamour I know that it comes with a lot of travel, stress and hard work.
However, more likely is the fact that I don’t actually believe that I can or should do it. This is the whole field of self-limiting beliefs.
The only things really between myself and the successful TV magician are training, contacts and hard work. I could do all of those. You might say there is a bit of luck as well. However, luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you prepare enough and put yourself out there enough, at some point you will get “lucky”.
Where do self-limiting beliefs come from?
Maybe from your upbringing? “Oh, we’re not that kind of people,” might have been a spoken – or unspoken – family mantra.
Maybe from a religious background? A healthy sense of humility can go too far and turn into false humility so that you hide your light under a bushel. A determination to not make mammon your god can lead to a sense of guilt about making money.
Maybe from something in your educational past? I had a tall, thin university tutor, reminiscent of a hawk leaning over the desk towards me. He used to say things like, “That’s obvious, surely?” and, “But that’s just schoolboy stuff!” when I didn’t understand something. The result: I felt like I wasn’t clever enough for years, even though I had an Oxford University degree.
Don’t Jump, You Can’t Fly
It is worth remembering that some self-limiting beliefs are good and for our own protection. We correctly believe we can’t fly by flapping our wings so we shouldn’t jump off high things, we correctly believe we are not flame-resistant so we shouldn’t put our hands in fires.
But we should try to work out which are the false beliefs that are holding us back.
Defy Your Doubts by Doing
Then we should take action to defy our false self-limiting beliefs so that they start to lose their power over us.
There are two songs on U2’s album Songs of Experience that have been inspirational for me recently: “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “Free Yourself to Be Yourself” (From “Lights of Home”)
I was performing at a three year old birthday party last week. It was in a small cottage living room. There were toddlers, two babies, several older siblings and some parents. A cosy and slightly chaotic atmosphere in which to do a magic and circus show. Such parties are great fun, you need to have a plan and plenty of material, but you need to be able to change tack in an instant because you never quite know what is going to happen next.
In my younger days I would have thought to myself, “I have a fantastic show and I am going to plough on regardless of what happens and they will then see my brilliance and commitment to my material.”
Adapt and Shine
Now I am more experienced I have realised that it is much more effective to be ready to adapt and improvise in the spur of the moment. In fact it often heightens the audience appreciation if you can incorporate and involve the interruptions of wandering toddlers or heckling parents and make them seem like amusing superstars.
Knowing when to stick with the script and when to change tack is hugely valuable life skill.
I have recently realised that I have a trait that has been a double-edged sword. It is my sense of duty, loyalty and commitment. For the whole of my life I have felt that, once I had committed to something, I should stick with it to the bitter end, come hell or high water. This has applied to to university courses, clubs, societies and even friendships.
This is all well and good, commitment and duty can get you through rough and difficult periods meaning that you and others benefit. But there comes a point when these traits can hold you back.
I completed a four year engineering degree as an undergraduate. I found it really tough and didn’t really enjoy it. I have never worked as an engineer. I briefly thought about changing course in my first year but didn’t because of my innate sense of duty and feeling that I should finish what I had started. Talking to my younger self I would say, “Change course, do something that you will love.”
Chapters and Seasons
Whatever you have done in the past will always remain part of your life. Rather like previous chapters in a book. They are always there as foundations, but the story moves on. Enjoy the different seasons of life.
Knowing when to stay or when to go is always tough always a judgement call. But hanging in there too long can hold you back from what really should be your next step.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
I would suggest that we can all have a more fulfilling and productive journey through life and work if we:
Work out when to commit to something
Reflect regularly on whether to continue or to do something different
Have the courage to move on to the next thing when the time is right
Remember, when life heckles you, it might be suggesting a new routine…
We went to Disneyland Paris earlier this summer. It is an inspirational and challenging place for an entertainer. I wasn’t performing, I was there as a punter, but I was struck by the sheer excellence of everything Disney do and the attention to detail.
Plus, Plus, Plus
One of my fellow Magic Circle magicians, Jez Rose, used to work in production for Disney. He told me about their concept of “plussing the show”. They are always asking, “How can we make this better?” When you go to a Disney park, you can see the extraordinary effect that this approach has.
It means that they are always improving, always striving to be the best they can be.
It reminds me of Matthew Syed’s book “Black Box Thinking”, in which he references the airline industry, always seeking to learn from past mistakes (via black boxes) in order to improve the safety of the industry as a whole.
Done is Better than Perfect
I would suggest that we can all enjoy better work and life by adopting this approach ourselves. We must be careful to avoid perfectionism, that way leads to frustration and inaction. But we can aim to be always improving. Done is better than perfect, but aim to do it better each time.
Tweak Every Week
Can you improve in your work? If you perform, write or produce anything regularly, how can you tweak it to make it better? Always self-evaluate, praise yourself for what went well and honestly analyse what you could do better next time.
You can also apply this to your life. Can you make you daily routine more effective? Can you change you exercise patterns to give you more energy? Can you make adjustments to your diet? Could you alter the way you travel around to make you more productive? Could you make subtle changes to the way you interact with family and friends to improve the quality of you relationships?
Get Better, Live Better
As we seek to constantly improve we will inevitably come across new ideas and new people. This will make life more interesting and more exciting.
It means that you wake up just before you start to go into deep sleep, meaning that you don’t wake up feeling drowsy.
Dr Hilary recommended having a cup of coffee, setting a timer for 19 minutes and then taking a nap. That way you wake up just as the caffeine is kicking in.
Magic Hanky and Noises Off
I have trained myself to fall asleep almost at will, which is very useful for short naps.
I set my timer, lie down, cover my eyes with a folded handkerchief.
Then a deep breath in and hold for a count of five then release. Repeat. Then to normal breathing. I focus on my breathing and also concentrate on background noises. I discovered this trick about a year ago. If I concentrate on the background noises, trying to pick them all out however faint, it means that I can’t concentrate on any work or other matters that might be playing on my mind. I have found that this enables me to fall asleep in a few minutes.
Don’t Worry, Chill
It also doesn’t matter if you don’t actually fall asleep. Just lying down for a few minutes in deep relaxation will give you almost the same amount of benefit, so release yourself from the pressure to actually fall asleep every time.
I now nap before every gig. I will drive to the gig and arrive at least an hour before my start time. I park round the corner, get out my neck cushion, lay the seat back, handkerchief over my eyes and then ask Siri to set me a timer for however long I have. After my nap I put on my bowtie and waistcoat, change my shoes and arrive at the venue 30 minutes early to greet the client feeling refreshed, relaxed and ready to go.