Magic and Public Speaking

May 29, 2015

Many people, including many talented computer programmers I know, consider creating a computer game some sort of crazy voodoo magic. It’s not, really, just a lot of hard work. However, the magic angle allows me to completely segue into another topic of conversation (mostly because I don’t have a lot to report on the game development this week). That topic is magic tricks and the role they can play in public speaking.

First, a (sort of) quick bit of backstory. I started my professional career strictly as a computer programmer. I was happy being in a back room developing software and leaving it to other people to present the software to clients.

At one point, the small company I worked for won a major contract. The client needed a bunch of changes to the software, changes that I helped to design and implement. And then came – dun, dun, DUN – the dreaded walkthrough. We needed to present the changes to the client. Each developer got tapped to present their own changes. Not only public speaking, but public speaking while showing off your “babies” and hoping for approval. It was a stressful time and not to be the last.

Since that first real brush with public speaking, I’ve gone on to do it so many times over the years. I’ve presented more walkthroughs of software changes to small groups. I’ve pitched ideas to management groups. I’ve demoed software to prospective clients. I’ve conducted day long training sessions on said software. I’ve hosted a three week long team building event for a group of 50+ developers.

I read or heard or possibly imagined once that most people fear public speaking more than they do dying. (Raising the morbid question: are you doing someone a favor by killing them before a public speaking event? Discuss amongst yourselves but hopefully not in public.) That first time I demoed my software changes I was terrified. I had trouble sleeping the night before. I couldn’t eat breakfast the morning of. And yet, when I got into the situation, those nerves went into the background. They didn’t go away completely but there was so much other stuff I had to focus on that they didn’t bother me anymore.

Now, of course, I’ve done that type of thing so many times that it’s not a problem. I still to this day get those nerves, but I expect them now and I don’t worry about them. Not that I’m any great speaker, but I can say that, as with most things in life, the more you do them the better you get at them. Which finally brings me to the topic of magic.

As my professional role evolved, I found myself doing less programming and more talking to groups of people. To help myself get more practice, I started “Magic Mondays” where I worked. I got a couple books and kits from novelty shops for doing sleight of hand type magic tricks. Every week I would practice a new trick and then present it to the team I was working with on Mondays. (I presented on Mondays. I worked with the team throughout the entire week.)

It was win-win all around. My team got the double fun of (a) seeing a new magic trick every week and (b) trying to figure out how it was done. For myself, I got to practice small doses of what is essentially public speaking.

Doing magic tricks like this helps with public speaking in several ways.

First is knowledge. To be able to do a trick for others you have to learn it cold. You have to repeat it and repeat it until you can do it without having to think about it anymore. Nothing’s worse in a magic trick than getting halfway through and forgetting the next step and you’re just left standing there.

Now, I’m not saying that for public speaking you want to memorize a script. Far from it. Instead, you need to be so comfortable with the material you’re presenting that you’ve internalized it. That you don’t have to think about it. This is particularly useful when questions come up because you’ll be able to answer them with confidence and without losing stride.

Second is presentation. Knowing a magic trick is not enough. To truly, effectively carry a trick off you have to present it with confidence. You have to go beyond the bare bones of working through the mechanical steps of the trick and instead inject into it energy and enthusiasm. Doing this is helpful for the audience. It keeps you lively rather than turning you into a droning, sleep inducing professor.

Third is control. I’ve seen public speakers who lack control. They fidget. They play with their clothes. Or they jangle the keys in their pockets. Or they don’t make eye contact with their audience. Such speakers project nervousness and at some volume.

When you’re doing a magic trick your hands are engaged. They have tasks to do shuffling cards, palming small items, and so on. Magic tricks, by their very nature, stop you from fidgeting. They also teach you to make eye contact with your whole audience as opposed to looking at only one person or no one at all. During a magic trick, you typically want to distract people from what your hands are doing. The best way to do that is to keep their attention focused on you. It’s hardwired into people that when you look at them they will, at least for a moment look at you. You’ve made eye contact. You have their attention. And in so doing you have control over the presentation. You’ve also managed to slip your sleight of hand past them.

Knowledge of your subject. Presenting with energy and enthusiasm. Controlling yourself and your audience. For me, I’ve found these to be the keys to successful public speaking. Magic tricks helped me to practice these.

The great thing about doing Magic Mondays, was that each magic trick I did only took five, six minutes max. It was small bouts of practice every week. My team was great. We trusted and respected each other. I felt like I was in a safe environment presenting to them. That even if I screwed up, we’d have a good natured laugh about it and it would be all right. Maybe you’re on a team like that too. Or maybe you’re tight with your family. Or have a good group of friends. Regardless, find a group you’re comfortable in and practice, practice, practice. You never know when your life will need a little magic. (That’s an allegory for public speaking. Just saying.)