Five points of public speaking — What managers can learn from magicians

Five points of public speaking — What managers can learn from magiciansPublic speaking fills many people with fear. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that:

“… people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This strong statement means to the average person that if you have to go to a funeral, you are better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”.

For professionals, public speaking is an essential skill which unfortunately not many of them excel at. We all have sat through death by Powerpoint; bombarded with slides and poorly presented disjointed information.

In my opinion, presentation skills are essential to succeed in any organisation—business presentations are a form of theatre. In this post, I will explain how a book popular among magicians—The Five Points of Magic Spanish performer Juan Tamariz—can be used to teach professionals about presentation skills.1 Below are some tips from the book that apply to both magicians and public speaking.

The Five Points of Public Speaking

1. The Eyes

Eye contact is the most important tool to connect with the audience. Don’t only look at the first row. Sweep your gaze like a fan across the spectators, giving everybody some personal attention.

Public speaking - eye contact

2. The Hands

The hands are the most important tool of the magician, and in business presentations, they usually perceived get in the way. But the hands can communicate almost anything. We should use our hands to point out things, present objects and emphasise the communication. Think about how you use your hands other than a means to hold your laser pointer.

3. The Voice

Imagine an elderly lady, who is hard of hearing, sitting at the back of the room. Dedicate the performance to her and project your voice to the last row.

Public speaking - project your voice

4. The Feet

The best place to stand is centre stage, facing the audience. Don’t hide behind the lectern or turn your back to the audience. This positioning is essential to be able to make good eye contact.

5. The Body

Body language is our subconscious means of communication. In theatre, and thus also in public speaking, we need to be aware of this type of communication.

In Conclusion

This post is only a glimpse into the wide array of literature on theatrical performances that can be applied to public speaking. Business people that perform magic have been found to be better public speakers.2 Next time you need to do a presentation, view it as a theatrical performance and follow the five points of public speaking.

One last tip: whatever you do, never imagine your audience naked, at best it will get you distracted.

If you like to know more about magic tricks, read my book Perspectives on Magic.

  1. Russian magician Manual Llaser uses the Five Points principle in corporate training. 

  2. Davids, Meryl. “Tricks of the Trade.” The Journal of Business Strategy 15, no. 3 (1994): 67. 

The Magician Manager: Using deception in business

The Magician Manager: Using deception in businessEvery manager would love to have a wand and make things happen magically. Although this vision is only a dream, managers do have a lot in common with magicians. Both the manager and the magician aim to create the world different from the one we know. Both the manager and the magician construct a new reality; the magician uses the stage, and the manager uses the workplace to frame their performance. Another similarity is that many magicians carved out a market in the corporate sector by providing entertainment at Christmas parties and similar occasions. But the similarities don’t stop here.

As an amateur magician, I collect academic journal articles about conjuring and found two interesting papers exploring the similarities between management and magic.

The magician manager

… a wand and make things happen magically.

David Pollitt described how the management team of a large retailer was invited for a magic show as part of their professional development. Magicians follow rigid procedures to create the illusion of magic, and the management team were encouraged to do the same to achieve results. Magician Richard Pinner performed a Russian Roulette inspired trick to illustrate that in customer contact there is only one chance to get it right.1

Professor’s of management Joe Dobson and Terence Krell published a paper on how to use magic tricks to teach organisational behaviour.2 They use magic tricks in the classroom to show that withholding information, like a magician withholds the methods from spectators, can create a power difference. So-called forcing techniques commonly used by magicians are an illustration of the fact that our free will is more often than not bound and limited by the context in which we operate.

Perception is not reality

Although a magic wand is not a reliable management tool, these examples from the academic literature show that professionals can learn from magic as it provides valuable lessons in psychology.3 Most importantly the magician’s ability to distort reality is a reminder that our perception is fragile and that we should always find out the facts, rather than rely on perception. The biggest difference between a manager and a magician is that a magician manages perception to create the illusion of a new reality. Managers focusing on perception, in reality, will find that they are creating an illusion.

If you like to know more about magic tricks, read my book Perspectives on Magic.

  1. Pollitt, David (2006). ‘Communication campaign conjures up success for Homebase: Magician theme makes for a memorable launch of guides’, Human Resource Management International Digest 14(5): 38-39. doi: 10.1108/09670730610678271

  2. Krell, Terence C. and Dobson, Joseph J. (1999) The use of magic in teaching organisational behaviour. Journal of Management Education-23: 44-52. doi: 10.1177/105256299902300105

  3. K. Fatehi-Sedeh (1980) A card game as a teaching aid. Journal of Management Education 5(3): 57-60. doi: 10.1177/105256298000500316

The Myth of Multitasking: Focus on one thing to be productive

The Myth of MultitaskingA popular buzzword heard around water coolers in offices spanning the globe is multitasking. The presumed ability to do more than one thing at the same time is seen as the hallmark of a great employee.

People imagine themselves as multi-armed Hindu goddesses or gods of efficiency, aiming to manage their time better by doing many things at the same time.

Unfortunately, multitasking is self- deception. Multitasking is, in the words of psychiatrist Edward Hallowell a mythical activity in that people believe they can do two or more tasks simultaneously just as effectively as one.1

Multitasking is a mythical activity

Unfortunately, the feeble human mind is not able to focus attention on more than one thing simultaneously. This limitation is no better illustrated than by a magician’s ability to deceive people, wonderfully demonstrated by Tommy Wonder in the video below. Magicians use techniques based on our limitations in attending to more than one thing simultaneously to create the illusion of magic.2 Neuroscientific research supports this practical knowledge. A neural network in the frontal lobe acts as a bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask. Not only do tasks take longer, but the quality is also reduced.3 What managers can learn from magicians and cognitive scientists is that we should focus on only one task at a time.

  1. Edward M. Hallowell. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life. 2007. Ballantine Books. 

  2. Martinez-Conde, Susana and Macknik, Stephen L. (2010) Sleight of mind. New York: Henry Bolt. 

  3. Paul Dux et al. (2006). Isolation of a central bottleneck of information processing with time-resolved fMRI. Neuron, 52: 1109–1120. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2006.11.009. 

The Magic of Marketing

marketing magicWhat do marketing and conjuring have in common? Some might say that both fields of human endeavour use deception to reach their objectives. Marketers promise a world in which consumers can be beautiful and live the life of the rich and famous. Magicians deceive by presenting a world in which spectators are asked to believe that the laws of nature can be suspended.

Marketers and magicians have, however, more in common than the creation of impossible worlds of universal beauty and magic. There are in fact four areas where magic shows and marketing overlap.1

Special techniques

Firstly, to be able to create the illusion of perfect or enchanted worlds, both marketers and conjurers need to use special techniques, hidden from consumers and spectators. Magicians spend many hours developing manual dexterity to create the illusion of magic. Marketers use special techniques to, for example, create the illusion that food looks fresh, even after ours in the spotlight of a photo studio.

Perception psychology

The use of perception psychology is the second correspondence. Most stage illusions are, just like advertisements, based on the fact that our mind makes inferences based on perceptual clues. We are led to believe that beautiful girls can be cut in half and restored just like we are led to believe that using the right deodorant will make you more attractive.

Attention management

Penultimate, both marketers and magicians, use attention management. These are psychological tools to ensure that consumers remember advertisements or that spectators only looks at the narrative aspects of the performance. In conjuring, this is mostly called misdirection, which is the technique to ensure viewers do not perceive the mechanical workings of a trick. In marketing, this is important because in a hyper-competitive world attracting attention from consumers is tough.


Finally, presentation and entertainment are important in both conjuring and marketing. Both are forms of theatre. A well-designed shop, website, supermarket and so on are similar to a stage. The most successful brands in the world understand and excel at this. The most important aspect of a magic performance or a marketing exchange is that the consumer has a positive experience.

The use of deception in marketing

Theatrical magic is based on deception, using the four principles outlined above. Using deception in marketing is considered unethical while using deception in a magic show is accepted. There exists a social contract between the magician and the audience that deception will be used to entertain them. But also in marketing, there is an implicit understanding by consumers that communication paints a positive picture and does not provide the whole truth. Just like a magician does not reveal the secrets, neither does a marketer point out the negative aspects of their offering.

  1. Thanks to Australian magician Simon Coronel whose show Manipulations provided me with this insight. 

Misdirection in Business Presentations

Misdirection in Business PresentationsIn a recent blog entry for Harvard Business Review, Jerry Weissman argued that misdirection is for magicians, not for presenters.

Misdirection is one of the few words of the specialist magician’s vocabulary that have made it into common vernacular.1 It refers to an essential technique in sleight of hand conjuring to distract the audience so that the actions of the magician that are the real cause of the magic can not be perceived. Some contemporary magicians no longer use the term misdirection but prefer ‘attention management’ to indicate that that the audience is directed towards the narrative of the magic trick instead of the technique.

This technique is not only used by magicians but all forms of the performing arts. Some even argue that misdirection is an essential skill in everyday human interaction.2 Erving Goffman described human interaction in a theatrical metaphor and emphasised the importance of managing impressions people have of each other.

Any good presenter is deeply involved in managing the attention of the audience away from the less important aspects of the presentation and focuses the attention on the important parts. In the Powerpoint era, beautifully designed slides can be used to give credence to an otherwise weak argument. The summarised and seemingly well-flowing information hides gaps in knowledge and insecurities of the presenter.

We all require misdirection in our daily and professional lives to construct who we are by our ideal self. People holding corporate positions, for example, communicate through clothing and are, according to Goffman:

… blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.

Goffman’s ideas might seem a pessimistic interpretation of human interaction, but deception is part of life because social reality is subjective. The manager has become an archetype of contemporary society. The manager is the prime example of homo economicus, the rational thinking problem solver that always seeks to maximise benefit, independent of social reality. This thought is, however, only an ideal that many of us strive to and we all play a role in the great theatre of life. This process occurs subconsciously and is a universal human trait.

Business presentations are a form of theatre even more so. Brief monologues designed to convince the listener that the presenter’s ideas should be implemented. Misdirection is a valid and natural way to create the ideal self of the lucid manager and convince people with your presentations. This post is, however, not an invitation to deceive in business presentations. Misdirection only works when it is subtle and skillfully applied.

  1. A. S. Fleischman (1949), Words in modern magic, American Speech (24)1, pp. 38–42. 

  2. Erving Goffman (1959), The performance of self in everyday life, Anchor Books. 

Predicting Behaviour in Recruitment: A Magician’s View

Predicting Behaviour in Recruitment: A Magician's ViewA used golden rule of recruitment is that past behaviour is an indication of future conduct. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?

Knowledge of the past is the foundation of all science and human knowledge. We try to predict the future by drawing from our experience of the past. Philosophers call this inductive process reasoning – drawing a general conclusion from a range of observations. But when you think deeply about this, we can never know for certain that our past observations can be used to predict the future. Scottish philosopher David Hume did precisely this more than two centuries years ago when he found that it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour.

For millennia people in Europe thought that all swans are white. This little kernel of absolute knowledge was rudely destroyed when in 1697 Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh was the first European to see a black swan in what is now Western Australia.

Predicting behaviour: A magician’s view

The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classic magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars. Teller showed that magicians could use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates what Hume philosophically argued: in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.

Predicting behaviour in recruitment

it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour

We have to be careful when judging a person through second-hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate by laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made an error in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring an individual with a high level of maturity and ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram“—I am not who I once was.

Generation Y Does Not Exist

Generation Y Does Not ExistMany articles about management are dedicated to the so-called Generation Y. Authors analyse their motivations, lament their supposed high expectations and so on. This arbitrary dividing of people into generational cohorts is, however, counterproductive.

Generation Y does not exist!

In my spare time, I occasionally perform magic shows for adults and children. Recently I was reading a booklet by David Kaye, who performs for children under the name Silly Billy.1

Through the so-called benefits of science—the impossible exploits of movie heroes, blood-curdling action stories in video games – the child is thrilled to such an extent that a magician’s bag of tricks becomes a poor substitute. All this has brought about another more malicious change. Fifteen or twenty years ago the average child was well-mannered, quiet and attentive. The magician had very little difficulty keeping them under control. Today it appears that those few exceptions have become the rule. Children are more ill-mannered. They have less respect for their elders and the conduct in public places is often far from commendable.

This quote illustrates an often heard complaint about the younger generations. But there is more to this quote that meets the eye. Just like in a magic show, I have deceived you a little:

Eddie Clever wrote this paragraph in 1939! Kaye only changed “radio shows” to “video games” and all of a sudden it looks as if it was written yesterday. We can go even further back to find similar concerns about the younger generations. There are records of Dutch priests in the 18th century lamenting the lewd and drunken behaviour of the young people in his parish. Have young people changed? I think not, it is us our perception of them that changes as we grow older.

This finding has a direct bearing on a concept that that is frequently used in our cultural landscape and contemporary management: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and other broad sweeping categorisations. In much of the management literature on this topic, it is made to believe that the young professionals of today are different to they way the authors themselves once were and should thus be treated differently.

There are distinct differences between age cohorts. As we go through the stages of life, we mature and our priorities change. There are, however, no psychological differences between age groups in the past, present or future. Our psychological make-up does not evolve fast enough for us to notice any differences.

Sure, there are people born between certain years, but to think that they are in any way psychologically different to the way Generation X or Baby Boomers were when they were at the same age as Generation Y is not supported by any evidence. The perceived generational problem is only caused by a lack of the older generations to be able to understand the others.

  1. David Kaye, The First Century of Children’s Magic