Career Lessons You Can Take From Magicians
It’s a tough workplace, and everyone has to have their USP.
I went to a talk once, a long time ago in Las Vegas, where a magician asked one simple question. “When you have a heart problem, what kind of doctor do you go to? A specialist, or a Doctor for All Occasions?”
Most magicians who I know are specialists. I know magicians who specialize in trade shows, weddings, kids shows, seances, you name it. Honestly, there are probably magicians out there who only do funerals. It’s worth noting that being a specialist in any of these areas is about a lot more than just putting a specialty on your website.
If you’re a magician, or really any kind of performer, you have to have the thing you’re known for. Some actors are known for their comedy chops, and others for their skill in disappearing into roles. Some musicians play jazz, or rock.
Magicians don’t usually make a living by doing stage shows or TV specials. Most magicians earn their bread by performing at events for which they are hired. Being a specialist magician isn’t just about being a “psychic” or a “card sharp”, which are stylistic specialties. It’s about being a specialist in children’s parties, or trade shows, or restaurants. It’s about knowing more about the needs of your clients than they expect you to.
Specialties in The Art of Magic
Many people think art is all about self-expression and just “doing your thing.” That’s true if you have a trust fund, but for most artists, life is about doing commercially viable work.
It’s easy to picture what that means for illustrators, film-makers, or writers. Since magicians aren’t well understood by most people (by design), it’s rare that a regular person understands what our specialties are all about. Even a good number of professional magicians think they perform because they must make themselves happy, and nothing more. This could not be further from the truth.
Before we go any further, just imagine for a moment that you are an expert magician. You know lots of great effects, and you have a sparkling personality people like to be around. How would you work at a cocktail party? Would you just walk up to anyone and risk breaking up a conversation? Would you only perform for the wallflowers who have nothing to do? Would you demand everyone’s attention when they’re trying to talk to each other? It’s a lot to consider.
Specialist magicians know a lot about their areas of expertise. When I started out, the friend who brought me on my very first professional gig (a party at a country club) told me that my job was to be an icebreaker. This, on a very basic level, is the core job of the party magician. Telling me more would have been overloading me with more information than I can handle. Even so, it’s a very specialist idea.
I would soon discover that specializing in adult parties would mean a lot more than just delivering an icebreaker. It’s about handling social situations. You see, people often don’t know why they feel the way they do about things. This is why experts are employed in the arts, and more relevantly, as event planners.
How do I address this problem in my profession? I ask myself, “What are my clients’ needs?”
What are the dangers of a badly planned party?
People don’t always know why they have good or bad times at parties. When you ask a guest why they had a bad time at a part, but the reasons are actually things they don’t know or understand, they’ll still come up with justifications.
You’ve probably done this yourself. Did you like the movie? No, because the seat was broken, but since you weren’t sensitive to that as you aren’t an interior designer or a carpenter, you just decide the acting was bad. That’s how everything works.
Those justifications will forever color how party guests remember the event, and how they view future events hosted by the same person. Confirmation bias takes over. Soon, guests will judge the food or the company or the surroundings by the imagined failings of that first party at which they had a bad time.
How does one address the needs of the client once those needs are assessed?
Unique Selling Point. That’s what you need. To determine what yours is, you need to understand what your job really is. Let’s go back a bit. Why does one hire a magician for a party in the first place? Why not a string quartet, or a stripper? Because you and or your guests enjoy magic, but why hire a specialist in parties? To keep this relatively simple, let’s stick with the example of cocktail parties, since they fit into many types of events.
Whether you’re having a company Christmas party, or hosting a black tie gala, you can’t be everywhere. Magicians are hired to ‘make the party better,’ but what exactly does that mean?
First: what do magicians do? They entertain and engage people. Unlike an actor or a musician, magicians can do this without overpowering the party with sound or forcing all conversation to stop. Magic can happen in the context of the cocktail reception without changing that fundamental dynamic.
This, combined with the idea of ‘what a magician is’ gives magicians tools no host and no other kind of entertainer has. We work outside the normal class structure.
The social dynamic of a party can be a minefield. America has this problem more than any other place I’ve been. Being blind to the consequences of the social dynamic can cause awkwardness, which is the enemy of a good party.
The hierarchy goes like this: Host, VIPs, guests, staff. The host’s attitude and actions are a guide to the VIPs and the guests for how they should behave. If the host is a close-talking hugger, the guests will slide into that behavior. If the host gives everyone a lot of personal space and acts in a genteel manner, everyone else will respond. Without getting into it, this is what etiquette is all about: avoiding awkwardness. Etiquette is not about stuffiness or formality for the sake of it. This is what it’s for.
The staff are there to follow the explicit orders of the host. They are being paid. They will laugh at every joke as though it is funny, and they will dote on every guest because that is their job. Don’t take advantage of them. Perhaps most importantly, the staff are the only people the host can talk to directly without social consequences. Entertainers, including magicians, are staff. Unlike most other staff, magicians get social capital no one else does, not even the host; we get glamor.
The host knows the guests, and the guests know the host. Anything the host asks of the guests is loaded with context and social meaning. Not so with the magician, who is treated like a minor celebrity.
Hypothetical situation: let’s say that when the guests start to arrive, the host is still at work in the kitchen. It’s likely that the guests will gravitate to the host, meaning they crowd into the kitchen.
The host is too busy to talk. The guests will all wind up packing into the kitchen, both near the host and feeling like they are being ignored because they are! The host is busy!
On some level, the guests will feel like they are just hanging out; not at a formal party, and they will begin to break social rules and risk awkwardness.
Once the kitchen fills with enough guests, the overflow will loiter near the door to the kitchen. It’ll get crowded and uncomfortable. It’ll prevent the people running the party from moving around and getting things done. It ruins the party.
Result: the host can’t really do the food prep work, nor can they make introductions. If the guests aren’t really good at being partygoers (yes, socializing is a skill), the party is going to get stale, and fast.
Slightly different scenario: let’s say the host has staff, who are working in the kitchen and serving guests in the main party space. A few guests will loiter near the kitchen, hoping to be first in on those bacon-wrapped figs. Now guests are in the way of staff who cannot confront them about their behavior. Why? The social hierarchy.
We say we don’t have classes in America, but at least in parties, we do. The help is the bottom of the food chain and can’t talk back to anyone. It’s the same reason why hitting on household staff is in very bad taste: they can’t express themselves (hint: they’re not interested) without fear of losing their jobs. Either way, those guests should not be there.
The host figures that they know everyone, so they can just tell them to move. If it comes to that, things have really gone off the rails. Leaving aside that the caterers can’t do this, if the host asks a group of guests to move away from the kitchen because the host is busy or the staff need room to work, that might ruffle some feathers. Due to the social hierarchy, the guests won’t say anything to the host, but may feel aggrieved. That’s what they’ll remember about the party.
At the same time, every moment the host repairs awkwardness at the party is time not spent curating introductions or enjoying the plan they had for the party they are hosting. It’s poison.
Enter the magician. The magician isn’t a normal person asking the guests to do normal things, so the magician won’t be asking them to leave the staff alone or not hang out where they are in the way.
If a magician asks those same guests to follow him to another room ‘to see something really cool,’ then the guests are entertained, not affronted. When other guests hear everyone in the other room having a good time, guests gravitate away from the kitchen, alleviating pressure. It’s not that the host couldn’t ask them to move, or would be out of line in doing so, but the magician will do it in a way that doesn’t change how the guests feel about the host or the party.
This same principle applies to the band having tech problems, or the VIPs running late, or getting the wallflowers to meet the cool people. The magician can do it all invisibly; I’m not asking people to move, or pipe down, or ignore the guest who just spilled wine all over themselves, I’m asking them to have fun.
“How’d you do that?”
In order to do any of these things effectively, the magician has to know about how parties work. Specialists like me have to talk to event planners, to people who own venues, doormen, bartenders, theater directors, musicians, caterers, gambling service providers, party dancers, burlesque performers, to anyone and everyone who makes a living making parties happen. Each one of these people will have a piece of the picture, and each piece contains something useful.
Here’s a concrete example of how this specialist knowledge pays off:
A magic client of mine hired me for a party. It was very well planned, with a band, a burlesque dancer, a juggler, gambling tables, and a director. It was epic.
At about 9:00 pm, a friend of the guest of honor got very drunk and said some very offensive things while under the influence. Everyone heard him as the band went silent at that exact moment. It was straight out of Seinfeld.
This moment was hugely embarrassing for the host and the guests. I asked the host (the girlfriend of the guest of honor) to order a taxi for the drunk, to give the cab company the drunk’s address, to pay them in advance, to tell the cabbie I’d be delivering the drunk to him, and to give me the high sign when the cab was downstairs. It’s worth mentioning this was long before Uber and had to be done by calling people on the phone.
I went over to the drunk and took him out of social circulation by cornering him and entertaining him with some magic tricks. This meant no one else had to deal with him.
When I got the high sign, I told him to put on his coat and I lead him downstairs to “show him a cool trick.” I told him to think of a playing card. I then walked to the cab and sprayed a deck of cards on the window of the back seat. The drunk looked at the window, seeing nothing unusual, which of course was what I expected. I told him to open the door and look all the way on the other side of the cab. He did. I closed the door behind him and the cab took him home. Job done.
The other thing to remember is that you are not there for yourself. You are there for the guests. Parties can have a way of drawing differences between guests into high relief (hence dress codes). If someone is poorer, more socially awkward, or disabled, a party can really make this difference stand out for them, if not for the other guests.
It’s very important as a magician that I have material prepared for any guests who have disabilities, so they get something special that isn’t a negative, because even if no one is mean to them, if they can’t dance, or hear the music, they might feel bad about it, and I can’t have that.
The truth is that since most magicians who perform at parties only do about 20 minutes of material over the course of the party (you do a lot of the same stuff for different audiences, and few people want to see more than five or ten minutes’ worth of material) but actually know hours of material, it’s easy to have a few things set aside as special for guests who will most appreciate the kindness and attention.
If you want to be special, be a specialist. It’s a unique selling point. It’s a reason to hire you, and not anyone else, or any other profession.
This is the level of granular detail at which I can talk about my specialty, which is one of the reasons I work many of the jobs I do. Whatever your profession, you need to brand yourself with a specialty based on the real needs of your potential clients, and learn to talk about how you add value in that specific and narrow specialty.
Sure, you won’t be the person who gets hired for all the jobs, but if your specialty addresses a client need, then you will become the go-to person in your field. You will be turned to more often, and you will be able to charge more. So get out there and find what makes you special and get good at it.