Misdirection in the Performance of Mentalism

by Dantalion Jones

Whether you are a magician who uses mentalism to some degree in your performance, or if you are a mentalist who tries as best as one can to not appear to be a magician, you can still improve your overall effectiveness by giving consideration to the role of the principles of misdirection.

mentalism: ESP, clairvoyance, thought transference, telekinesis, prediction, and all the rest, are all too often mistreated by magicians. On the opposite side, reasonable use of sleight of hand, mechanical devices and staging, timing and other presentational requisites – including misdirection – are all too often shunned by the “pure” mentalist.

Please bear with this next unfortunate distraction. For the reader uninitiated to the often strong dividing line drawn by some between the “mentalist” and the “Magician”, be aware now that it exists. Of necessity, it colors this entire article. There are some mentalists who believe that magicians shouldn’t even do anything in the mentalism area as part of an otherwise strictly “magical” show. They claim it detracts from the strong possibility of the potential reality of mentalistic endeavors. Strangely enough, many of these same people argue that mentalists should make some sort of disclaimer during their performances so as to not scam the audience. Overall, this is not an argument this article cares to deal with, though it is difficult to write of magic and mentalism without doing so in its shadow.

If there is a common plank we can tread between these two divergent philosophies, it is that in all cases, for both mentalist and magician alike, we want to present the very best effect we can. The ever-present consideration of misdirection’s potential application will vastly improve your performance.

Now, an example: Its purpose is to give a specific example of the general concept. It’s predominantly Corinda’s “My Word”, from his Thirteen Steps to mentalism, and on page 115 of my version. It is a prediction effect. In brief, it is a book test. From here on, it is generally Corinda, with my variations. I made every variation based upon my attention to the “two tips” of what I have come to call the Mental Magic Wand. (See The Linking Ring, Vol. 79 “The Mental Magic Wand and Retrospective Misdirection,” Page 73) I have to be certain that I ask:

1. What might be presumed?
2. What must not be seen?

The effect: Three audience members independently select the page, line and position number of a word that will later be located in a legitimate book by another audience member. It will then match a prediction that has been enclosed in a clearly ungimmicked cardboard folder, which has been in plain view throughout the performance. (The book is undoubtedly for real, and the on view prediction is clearly not trickery.)

The performance: A thick paperback book is handed out to a pre-selected female volunteer in the front row. [Later, there’s more on the pre-selection.] As the book is shown, it is explained that it has some nearly three hundred pages, each with about fifteen lines of text, some six to nine words per line. That’s some 35,000 words. The volunteer and her female assistant are to check this out while others in the audience are to help create a selection. Here’s a chance for some non-depreciating humor about, “not having to count each word,” etc.

To find our word, audience members will fill in the blanks on an index card. The card has three lines of already handwritten options, in visible, fat, red marker ink. I hold it up, the blanks yet to be filled in, and say, “In a moment, you will pass this card back among you, try to pass it several persons away [or, if there are tables, “…to the next table”] for each new option.

“See, here, on the top line it asks someone to fill in a page number. The next choice is to fill in a line on the page, and the last is to designate a word in that line.” I take the pre-folded card, fold it into fourths, clip it to the marking pen’s metal clip, and hand it to a person close to me and say, “Please fill in the page number, something between twenty and two hundred something,” and pass it on. I reiterate the number of pages, lines and words to assure their choices are within the given perimeters.
This is important. The pen is wide-bodied, black Sharpie brand. When all three people have done their job, I collect the pen, which I verbally make certain has the folded card attached to the clip, and standing before the audience I remove the card. I hand it to the assistant, who I’ve had come forward to meet me. She then brings it to the main book reader, and they look up the page, line and word.

At this point, prediction or mind reading, the word is revealed and all are truly impressed. (For the prediction version, I point to a folded and plain cardboard, which has been sitting, tent-like atop the table and untouched all during the show. I open it and on a plain piece of paper is written the very word which I repeat and show.)

Corinda says, “Before I describe the effect I would like to say that this is a creditable example of simplicity and boldness. You might think it too simple to work – but if you do as I have done, try it out… Tricks that look like miracles in print sometimes flop badly in practice. This is the reverse; it looks silly in print and worlds like a charm.” It was on the basis of this challenge that I first tried it; Corinda was right. Audiences love it. How would you do it?

It’s a switch. I have, in my right pants pocket, a duplicate of the folded index card, designations in red, with the page, line and word numbers I want, in black and with seemingly varied handwriting. This is removed from the pocket, palmed, and a switch made. I do have a way of actually holding the pen up, card clipped to it, and doing a push and fold back with my right thumb as I reach for the edge of the card, thus allowing the palmed card to take its place as the one seemingly being removed from the clip, but that’s not the important part.

I could just extend the fingers of the left hand, which holds the pen, thus covering the clipped card, and simultaneously reach up and pull the right hand away while pushing the palmed card into view. A little work before your mirror and you’ll be able to come up with a nice move of your own that looks natural and non-”magical”.

Corinda, working a theater audience, has one person in the rear of the room filling in the blanks, and suggests that you make the switch while walking back to the front of the room, your back pretty much turned to the audience. So, he says, you don’t have to worry about the switch being seen at all. That’s highly impractical for most of us. Besides, What really counts is taking the to-be-switched, pre-folded card from the pocket. There are mentalists who claim that this isn’t a big deal. Just do it, they’d say, this isn’t a “magic trick”. I agree, almost. It should be a “nothing” action. [In answer to “Why not just palm it out from inside the book at the beginning?” I believe there’s too much ongoing opportunity to flash it. You could, if you’re really careful.]

How would you do this? Taking advice from my own book, Misdirection for Close-up Magicians, “Many times in the process of doing the secret things we do, we arouse suspicion because the move is unnatural or downright obvious. Often, these suspicions can be alleviated by preconditioning the audience to the naturalness or insignificance of the action.” This is misdirection by physical preconditioning.

Earlier in my program, almost at the beginning, I reach into my pocket and pull out a Chap Stick. Now, it might seem bad style to use a lip balm in front of the audience, but it fits my style, my persona. This happens again a bit later, just to be certain no one has missed it the first time. The next time it happens, there’s a palmed, folded card in my hand. The stick goes back and the card stays out.

There’s always the option of putting your hands into your pockets on a regular basis, although it seems people don’t slouch around with their hands in their pocket in this day and age. People are inherently suspicious, and reaching into your pocket will draw attention. When you defuse that suspicion with a reason for the reaching in, you misdirect their ascribing of guilt. Later, I might even go for the lip balm again, if my lips feel dry.

There are two other misdirectional aspects to this routine. One is very strong. I ask the volunteer to come and get the slip from me, rather than brining it to her. I know her name from before, so I say, “Sandra, would you come and get the card, please?” and as she rises, I remove the card. Most eyes are on her. Often, she will even say something.

As I hand her the twice folded slip, I first hold it up to the light and ask, “Tell me, can you see the numbers through the card?” She will look to the card, and while she or the card are being studied by the audience, my pen and real card holding hand has dropped naturally to my side. As she walks back to her place, I put the pen in my inside jacket pocket and address her again with further instructions.

The volunteer and the card reader know that the original card was in red, filled in with black. This divergence of color is somewhat recommended by Corinda who suggests pen, then pencil.

About the volunteer and pre-show work: I do this whenever possible, although it’s not essential. I do not want my word-finding volunteer reading the numbers incorrectly, or finding the wrong word, or purposely (Heaven forbid!) feeding me a wrong answer. When possible, prior to the show, I approach two women seated together and explain that I hate to surprise people in my show, or have to wait for volunteers and, therefore, would they be willing to help me later. All they have to do, it’s explained, is examine a book, which I at this point let them examine, and later find a word the audience will determine, and get the right word. I explain the need for the volunteer as having to do with “finding the word is a two handed process,” and that it helps with accuracy.

When I begin the routine, I tell the audience that I’ve previously asked two people to assist me. That they have had the opportunity to examine the book I’m holding up, and at this point get them to concur that they have. I point out that there was no further collusion, getting the pre-volunteers to agree to this, too. In fact, at this point I often find it convenient and strong to claim that I offer a ten thousand dollar reward should anyone be able to prove collusion or conspiracy between myself and any member of the audience. Thereby, in order to assure the correct word selection, I actually create an opportunity for double misdirection. This entire routine takes five minutes, maximum. For some, it might seem I’ve gone to great lengths to do so simple an effect. As I mentioned earlier, in attending to the two tips of the Mental Magic Wand), I must be certain that I ask: 1. What might be presumed? 2. What must not be seen?

If you go back over the routine as described, you’ll see that both of these considerations are strongly covered. Exacting as the considerations might be, they are performed casually and within the natural flow of the performance, which is unhurried, yet precise. While the slip is being shuttled about, by the way, I take that opportunity to make a few comments about the phenomenon being demonstrated. This distracts from the process, and, far more importantly, keeps the audience entertained.

A final note, should you decide to try this routine. When at the end you collect the book from the volunteer, it is easy and natural to also get the card back with it. Do not leave the card out there for later comparison. Corinda’s version allows one person to write in all three numbers. I have the selections made by three people so it is more difficult for them to compare notes, especially if it’s a corporate function or a party where many people are likely to know each other. I also use three varied handwriting styles in my switch in card, and perhaps this adds some retrospective misdirection for the word finder volunteers, subconsciously dissuading them from seeking out the number writers because it is “obvious” that different folks wrote in the numbers.

This routine is but a single example of many opportunities to consider how misdirection will make mental routines more effective. Apply the two tips of the Mental Magic Wand to any mental effect, and scrutinize all your mental effects to see if you can be simple, direct, and yet subtle in your methodology.

As mentalists are fond of pointing out, it is very easy to get carried away with trickiness and cute things, when in a mental effect simplicity is the watchword. It is challenging for the magician to do mentalism, because it often doesn’t fit the program. Where and how does mind reading, for example, fit in the standard magical program? All too often, magicians “paint themselves into a corner” with their presentational styles, being too much the trickster and too little the creator of wonders. If you can make a previously selected card somehow turn face up in a face-down deck, all who watch believe it is miraculous sleight of hand, but not truly a miracle. If you claim to have a friendly ghost who makes that happen, well then you’re suddenly a different kind of cat, aren’t you? You’re becoming a mentalist, a spiritualist. Then, would you explain the coins across? And the stage / parlor linking rings, or the floating ball – what causes this?

Therefore, as a magician, you need to pay attention to how and why you venture into this realm. Equally, as a mentalist, you need to consider how to use magic craft so that your routines are bulletproof and effective. If you look through the bibliographies of the better mentalism books, you’ll see the names of “magicians” as significant contributors. The implication is beyond the simple endorsement of one area of the magical spectrum by the other; it is this – skill, hard work, and much thought are required to arrive at the best results.

When renowned magician Jean Hugard said, “The principle of misdirection plays such an important role in magic that one might say that Magic is misdirection and misdirection is Magic,” he perhaps left us a clue to deeper understanding. Look again at that quote. It’s catchy. So be careful, because you aren’t required to believe Hugard just because he’s a famous name from the past. That said, if you do concur, then realize that it contains a word of massive significance – Principle. Could Hugard not have just said, “Misdirection plays such…”? Was he just being wordy, or did he really want us to consider the principle underlying the purpose of, the need for, and the application of misdirection as it makes magic truly magical? If the latter seems likely to you, then it somewhat dispels the differences between mentalist and magician, so far as responsibility to the craft is concerned.

Hopefully, the study of the principles of misdirection, be you “magician” or “mentalist”, along with the Mental Magic Wand’s two tip consideration, as applied to this article’s example, will create a never-ending opportunity for challenge and self-improvement, and help to put more magic in your mentalism.

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