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Atlanta Magician – Mentalist – Speaker Joe M. Turner | News and Comments from the Chief Impossibility Officer

Archive for May, 2012

Magic and Government Spending: Waste or Real ROI?

Posted by Joe M. Turner | on May 4, 2012

In recent weeks the news has been full of stories focusing on spending issues as they relate to conferences and meetings, specifically in the government sector. Articles about lavish spending on the 2010 GSA Western Regions Conference, which included a presentation by a mentalist, continued for weeks. Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pulled an advertisement they had placed seeking a magician and motivational speaker for an upcoming meeting. That decision, as presented in much of the media, happened “in the wake of the GSA scandal.” The story was originally broken by Government Executive Media Group, who contacted me today for comment. (UPDATED – Here’s the link: Magic acts at conferences can add substance, professionals say.)

Corporate speaker, consultant, and entertainer Joe M. Turner

Corporate speaker, consultant, and entertainer Joe M. Turner uses magic and mentalism as a communication tool to deliver real value at conferences and meetings in the public and private sectors.

People who know me and my personal political inclinations know very well that I am no fan or defender of wasteful government spending. In fact, I am strongly in favor of multiple large cuts in federal (and state and local) government spending and applaud the watchdog instinct that leads to questions in stories like these.

Sometimes, though, it is so easy to go for either the joke or the jugular that some relevant details are lost or ignored. Reporters, commentators and their readers may reach hasty conclusions about the value of presenters based on preconceptions about labels used in describing them. Certainly labels like “magician” or “mindreader” are more likely to attract jokes than labels like “football player” or “rock star.” These kinds of situations would probably have never made the news if the people involved were Tim Tebow, Bono, or perhaps some famous magician like Penn Jillette or David Copperfield… even if those people had less relevant content to share than the people who were actually booked or considered.

In the light of recent events, then, I’d like to offer both some cautions and some encouragements for my friends, clients, and readers as they process news stories such as these.

As I indicated above, don’t let preconceived ideas about a single label serve as your entire definition or concept of what a presenter offers to his or her audience. The word “magician” doesn’t mean the same thing to all people; for many, it carries connotations of bunny rabbits, balloon animals, top hats and capes. For others, it sounds like smoke and mirrors and vanishing girls and windblown hair. It has the feel of a children’s party or a Las Vegas show. Those images are obviously effective in creating a perception of wastefulness or irrelevance to a conference or meeting, but they are far removed from the experiences delivered by a variety of speakers and entertainers like me in corporate settings every day.

Remember that just because a presenter falls into one category doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t simultaneously belong in another category. The brand of “mentalist” or “magician” may simply be the garnish on an individual who has real experience and expertise to share. Admittedly, that isn’t true for every performer. Yes, there are some entertainers who, in an attempt to make a buck, contrive ways to add some buzzwords to their show and turn a “show” into a “presentation.” That isn’t true in every case, though. There are people with legitimate education, credible business experience, and hard-earned management battle scars who also have the benefit of being entertaining, talented people with unique ways of presenting their content. Want to talk about waste? It would be a horrible waste to deprive people of the legitimate benefit of these people’s insights because an easy label is used to imply that they are trivial.

What is more wasteful than a conference that everyone attends but nobody remembers? Return on investment is zero if people are too bored to attend to the information being presented. What adds more value: a fully factual presentation presented to an empty room, or an entertaining and factual presentation presented to a room of engaged attendees?

Speaker and entertainer Joe M. Turner was interviewed for a story in Government Executive magazine.

“Magic acts at conferences can add substance, professionals say” – top story on

People cannot act on or benefit from information they do not remember, and people do not remember information as well when it is presented in ways that are not engaging. In my presentations on memory improvement, I mention that we forget a lot of information that we encounter simply because it failed to break through the background noise. Magic and mentalism, as I have long contended, are ideal formats for communicating important messages because the experiences are by definition out of the ordinary. Human beings are wired to remember things that are different, things that are unusual, and things that interrupt our normal patterns. Reading minds and defying physics are not normal experiences, and when real information is tied to those experiences, that information is retained far longer than information buried in the middle of a 100-slide PowerPoint deck.

Effective presentations often include an element of fun. Think back to the most boring teachers or professors you ever had. Now think back to the best ones. How quickly we forget.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you go out and book any magician or mentalist who also claims to be a sales trainer, leadership guru, or teambuilding expert. I wrote in my previous article (Credibility Counts) that anyone can claim anything. It is certainly wise stewardship to examine résumés, check references, and consider what individuals really have to offer. What critics may call “gimmicks” are not a substitute for real content; at the same time, they are not to be dismissed out of hand. Having a unique and entertaining presentation is a proven path to increased retention. When wielded by people with legitimate content and relevant experience, tools such as magic, mentalism, and a host of other skills are not wasteful expenditures, but in fact good ways to incent attendance, boost engagement, and increase retention.

Joe M. Turner is a professional speaker and corporate entertainer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a former manager in the change management practice at Accenture and a former Vice President of Associate Development at Bank of America. He has performed at meetings, conferences, and entertainment venues from Hollywood to London. Joe leverages the theatrical impact of magic and mentalism in his keynote presentations as a tool to engage attention and communicate messages on positive response to change, memory improvement, and creating amazing experiences with your brand. Visit him online at and follow him on Twitter @turnermagic.

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Changing the Model: The Real Experience of Magic and Mentalism, part 2

Posted by Joe M. Turner | on May 3, 2012

In the last article, I described a mechanical model for interpreting the experience of magic and mentalism. I contend that the mechanical model presents a flawed picture of what is really happening.  Another model for the interpretation of the magical experience is seen in Figure 2.  This model, while similar to the first model in basic structure, has some important differences.

Figure 2 - The Experiential Model of Interpreting Magic

Figure 2 – The Experiential Model of Interpreting Magic

The concept of method has been expanded to include not just the external tools and actions of the performance, but also some the internal perceptions of both the performer and the audience.  Restricting the idea of method to only the physical action ignores two key concepts.  First, the attitude and mental state of the performer can play a key role in the ultimate experience of the audience.  Second, there are many important techniques which allow the performer to influence the perceptions of people in the audience.  While not as easy to manipulate as physical objects, the attention and therefore the perception of the audience can be directed both physically as well as through intangible means such as the construction of the script.  By this reference to the script I don’t mean the dynamics of the spoken words, which are physical events, but rather the architecture of the plot itself which can direct and manipulate attention.

The key element of this model is the refocusing of attention on which part of the overall interaction should be labeled as “magic.”  This label has been shifted from the method to a portion of the inner perceptions and experience of the audience.  This is the real stage on which magicians and mentalists perform.  The ability to make changes to the audience’s perceptions and to create experiences in their minds is precisely the work of the magician or mentalist.

The most important consequence of refocusing our interpretation of the overall magical interaction on the created experience is that it puts our attention on a real and relevant part of the communication.  Instead of focusing on gimmicks and secret moves and strange apparatus, the emphasis is on the emotions and experiences of the viewer.  Gimmicks and moves and props, whether poorly made or crafted by experts, are still only tools.  Because they may be described as fake or phony in some way, the entire interaction may be labeled as fake because the emphasis is placed, wrongly, on the tool.  The thoughts and emotional responses of the viewer, while intangible, are never considered fake by the person who thinks or feels them.

Despite being presented in a novel way, this isn’t an altogether new concept.  Magicians and mentalists have long written about their art in terms of “method” and “effect.”  In magic books, the effect is what the audience sees and experiences during a single trick or illusion.  It is often explained in a sentence or two.  The method is the set of actions that the performer must execute in order to do the trick.  While many great performers and writers have emphasized the importance of effect over method, most magicians are enamored with method because it is there where their physical skills are developed and tested.  There is no substitute for excellence in method, nor any excuse for failure in technique, but the real secret of magic – and the secret of real magic – that the greatest performers have always understood is that effect is ultimately more important.

In the end, the most useful interpretation of magic experiences is not as merely the combination of props or tools or techniques that are used in the performance.  Nor is it best seen as the pretended outcome of whichever imaginary power is on display.  Understood more constructively, magic is the resulting experience of the impossible that happens inside the mind of the audience member.  The real magic isn’t the physical disappearance of the coin or the lady or the tiger.  Magic is the intangible but nonetheless real experience of that impossibility in the mind of the spectator, no matter how that perception is achieved.

To be clear, this is not intended as a restatement of the well-worn adage that “perception is reality.”  Advertising professionals, marketing experts, and communication gurus have covered that idea and how it relates to business many times before; you probably have books on the subject in your own library.  This concept of the nature of magic as a real experience is based on the simpler and far more modest proposition that perception is a real thing.

View of a performance from the wings

Magic and mentalism are a form of theatre. Effective magical performances lead audiences to focus on messages and experiences rather than props and methods. Our craft is a tool to create the show, not the show itself.

By rethinking the essence of magic, not as a pretended supernatural reality but as the real experience of a constructed perception, most people can relate to magic as something that actually happens, even in their own lives.  Most of us have experienced something that seems beyond explanation, at least for the moment it takes to perceive the experience as astonishing or impossible.  That pen appeared in your jacket pocket; you realize later that it must have been brushed off the table into your pocket when you sat down, but at the precise moment you saw it there and didn’t know or hadn’t yet deduced how it could possibly have gotten there, the experience of magic occurred.  It is a real thing.  It is a real experience.  It is a valuable experience.  It is, in fact, an experience that people will not only remember, but one that they will pay to encounter over and over again.

Magicians do create real magic, then, not by using special supernatural skills to manipulate the physical world, but by using special theatrical skills to construct perceptions that result in the real experience of the impossible.

So, is magic real?  Maybe in the context of a tenth-century understanding of science and religion it’s not, but in a twenty-first century theatrical context?  Absolutely.  The psychological experience of magic is real, and the different aspects and implications of such experiences are worthwhile to explore.

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