Hocus Pocus Focus (Part 1)

 


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“The first impulse of people is to believe. ” Dr. Harlan Tarbell

The magician, stands center stage as various assistants enter and exit. Usually a piece of exotic apparatus is introduced. The story line calls for the magician to don a hood. He does so, as do his assistants. The magician grabs the leading lady by the arm and places her, usually bound, into the apparatus and locks it shut. The assistants make a great show of tying ropes around the box. Once the box is thoroughly tied, the dancers strut around the stage. They turn the apparatus side- to-side and end-to-end as the magician walks around the box. When the box stops turning, the dancers prance around it. At an appropriately suspenseful moment, the box is opened. Surprise! It’s empty. The magician takes his hood off. Surprise. It’s the assistant. But where’s the magician? At this moment, the magician appears, to the breathless amazement of the audience, at the back of the theater and run down the center isle of the theater. He runs to the stage and receives a well deserved round of applause.

Magicians and trainers: two artists with more in common than you might think. This month and next I will explore the similarities between these two art forms and identify the lessons magicians offer trainers as we focus on hocus pocus.

The First Illusion We don't know when the first human magic was performed any more than we know who the first trainer was. We can however assume that the first “miracle worker” was viewed with awe and wonder. In ancient times, conjurers were highly regarded as communicators to gods, predictors of the future and advisors to kings. As humanity grew to understand science, magic became a less relevant source of miracles. It became instead what it should have been all along, an entertainment art form. Harry Houdini delivered the death knell for magicians as miracle workers. After Houdini's mother died, Houdini attended séance after séance in a forlorn attempt to contact her. Unfortunately for the mediums, their tambourine shakings, bell ringings, table liftings and ghostly writings did not fool Houdini. He felt betrayed and conducted a single-handed crusade that destroyed the mediums and completed the transition from magician-as-miracle-worker to magician-as-entertainer.

Although trainers were never regarded as communicators to gods, they were once upon a time regarded as miracle workers. All a manager had to do was send a problematic employee to training and the trainer would work learning miracles. That perception is long gone, along with the dot.com bubble. In today’s tighter times, traditional training is often viewed as the equivalent of the medium with the ability to do little more than rattle tambourines.

Magic and training both suffer what the psychologists call cognitive disconnect. We are suspicious of magicians. The very word “illusion, " originally Latin, means “to make fun of, and most people don't like to play the fool. And yet magic’s lure remains. We may have lost our belief in the divinity of magicians, but not the desire to believe. We watch a fake, and knowing its fakeness, still fall for the illusion.

Magicians have responded to this disconnect by downplaying the trick. Granted, magic is performed through trickery, but audiences rarely leave a magical entertainment bragging about how well they were tricked. The trickery is a tool, not an end in itself. People do not want to be tricked; they want to be entertained. And yet, in order to entertain, the magician must manipulate.

In a similar vein, adults often enter the training environment full of suspicion. Admitting the need to learn implies admitting a lack of completeness, in a strange room, in front of strangers, to an instructor who can exert control over the trainee’s fate. The trainer, like the magician, must present his or her art form to an often suspicious audience who deep down inside want to learn. Like the magician, the trainer must manipulate to teach.

Manipulation

When people watch magicians perform, they see the manipulation of cards, billiard balls, silk handkerchiefs, and other paraphernalia. With trainers, they see the manipulation of logistics, electronic media and classroom materials. There is a level of manipulation that neither audience sees: the performer's manipulation of the audience. Consider the magician. The extraordinary effort that the magician puts into directing the audience's attention is hidden from view. The audience sees magic: the magician sees deception. Likewise, the best trainer takes constant care to hide the class mechanics from view so that the trainees can focus on learning. The trainee sees illumination: the trainer sees controlled sequences. The trainer must influence the trainee’s mind in order for learning to occur. Both magician and trainer must use two fundamental principals to manipulate the audience: direction and suggestion. The story that opened this article made extensive use of both principals. Let's look at that story again. Only this time, we will examine the illusion from the magician's point of view.

Hocus Pocus Refocused.

The magician, stands center stage as various assistants enter and exit.

The first time a spectator sees an assistant enter, they notice. They may even notice the second entrance. But soon, the comings and goings become routine, and no longer warrant attention. They become invisible. The magician directs attention away from these entrances, suggesting their lack of importance.

Usually a piece of exotic apparatus is introduced.

The box is not the focus of this illusion, the upcoming switch is. By directing attention towards the box, the magician directs the spectator’s attention away from the various personnel on stage. The magician suggests the box is important. This false focus makes the switch a total surprise.

The story line calls for the magician to don a hood. He does so, as do his assistants.

No magician wants to wear a hood. It's hot, sweaty and unattractive. The nature of this illusion is a switch, and a switch cannot occur if the magician is easy to spot on stage. The magician dons a hood so that the switch can occur, but audience knowledge of that purpose would telegraph the illusion. A story line that suggests a logical explanation is invented for the hood.

The magician grabs the leading lady by the arm and places her, usually bound, into the apparatus and locks it shut. The assistants make a great show of tying ropes around the box.

The ropes are inconsequential as a barrier to escape, but important as a directing tool. They play no role in the illusion, except to suggest that escape is impossible. In addition, the rope by-play allows the leading lady time to escape her bonds, take off her outer layer of clothes to reveal an assistant’s costume and hood, and slip out a trap door in the back of the box. As the last of the ropes are tied, the leading lady, now dressed as an assistant, exits stage left with the other assistants, who are by now not important enough to watch, as the hooded magician directs attention to him by walking towards the audience.

Once the box is thoroughly tied, the dancers strut around the stage. They turn the apparatus side-to-side and end-to-end as the magician walks around the box.

With all the whirling, twirling, circling, and strutting, it is had for the spectator to remain focused on the critical details. There is just too much stimuli directed at them. At this point, while the spectators are in stimuli overload, the magician boldly walks toward the wings.

When the box stops turning, the dancers prance around it.

The alluring dancers direct attention away from the magician, who, having reached the wings, exits stage left. At that precise moment, the dancers execute their most provocative dance step. Almost immediately, the leading lady enters from the exact area where the magician exited, and by manner of walk and attitude, suggests that she is the magician.

At an appropriately suspenseful moment, the box is opened. Surprise. It’s empty. The magician takes his hood off. Surprise. It’s the assistant.

The suggestion is that the switch occurred at that instant. Of course, the switch is minutes old, but, because the magician purposely directed their attention away from the critical events, the spectators completely missed it. They now begin focusing on possible solutions for the switch, but it is too late. The trail has already gone cold. Besides which, their attention is about to be directed away from the puzzle with an even more enticing stimulus.

But where’s the magician? At this moment, the magician appears, to the breathless amazement of the audience, at the back of the theater and run down the center isle of the theater. He runs to the stage and receives a well deserved round of applause.

To the spectator, the switch is made all the more miraculous by the appearance of the magician at the back of the theater. The unstated suggestion is that the magician has just now magically appeared at the back of the theater. A closer look would reveal his fast breathing. For, he has just run all the way around the theater. But the magician isn’t the only one gasping for air. The audience has been left breathless.

What seemed like a true miracle was accomplished through direction and suggestion. We will overview each of these fundamental principals in turn, and examine the ways they relate to the learning environment.

Direction

To create magic, magicians must bend the laws of nature. Or rather they must seem to bend the laws of nature. Control isn't necessary; the appearance of control is enough. That appearance of control comes from directing the audience's attention away from items that would destroy the illusion, and towards those that reinforce it. Direction can take many forms but is invariably a physical action: a nod, a gesture, a change in posture, or a verbal statement.

To foster learning, trainers must also control the environment. Bulgarian psychotherapist Dr. Giorgi Lozanov, the father of Accelerated Learning theory, believed that adult suspicions about the classroom block learning. He viewed joyful direction on the part of the instructor, one in which the instructor positively directs the trainees toward the learning goal and away from negative behaviors, as critical to learning.

And old training saying suggests trainers should “tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. ” Magicians tell the audience what the magician wants them to see, tells them what they should be seeing, and then tells them what they just saw. Where trainers direct attention towards positive learning outcomes, magicians misdirect attention away from truth.

A simple example is the magician's statement, “Nothing up my sleeve. ” This is an intentional ploy. Calling attention to the obvious preempts future “It was up his sleeve” comments. It also gives the audience something irrelevant to think about, thus pulling their attention away from the bulge in the magician's pocket, or in the case of the switch, away from the critical events of the illusion.

Attention was directed towards the box, and away from the assistants. The hoods were explained in the story. Because no extra attention was paid to them, they seemed unimportant. The attention placed on the tightness of the ropes implied importance when there is none, and stalled for time while the assistant changed clothes and slipped through the trap door. The alluring dance steps directed attention away from the switch. The appearance of the magician at the back of the theater directed attention away from the true secret of the illusion. All these events were planned to control what the audience saw. Without this direction, the illusion could not have happened.

In a similar fashion, every stimulus in the learning environment sends a message about the value of the training. The savvy trainer orchestrates all those stimuli so as to direct attention towards the learning goal.

Suggestion The second of our two fundamentals is suggestion. Where direction is often a physical, via gestures, posture, and verbal statements, suggestion is the art of implication. Dariel Fitzee Explained suggestion as “… A subtle but positive act of putting something into the mind of the spectator. ”

This definition parallels Giorgi Lozanov's comments about Suggestopedia. Lozanov's defined suggestion as:

“A constant communicative factor which chiefly through paraconscious mental activity can create conditions for tapping the functional reserve capacities. ” Lozanov believed that adults bring personal learning barriers into the classroom with them, and that facilitators should create an aura of joyfulness and then use that aura to suggest positive learning outcomes.

In the Hocus Pocus switch example, the magician employed several suggestions:

  • The comings and goings of the assistants were not important
  • The box was a major focus of the illusion
  • Hoods needed to be worn because of the story
  • Ropes make escape from the box impossible
  • The hooded assistant was the magician
  • The switch occurred in an instant
  • The magician magically appeared at the back of the theater Each of these suggestions was false, but was accepted as true by the audience.

    In the learning environment, the trainer offers several suggestions that aid learning:

  • The subject to be learned is critical to job success or personal or professional well-being
  • The time spent together will be well spent
  • The subject is not too difficult to learn
  • Anyone who applies themselves can learn the material
  • The class will be an enjoyable experience

    These suggestions can be critical to classroom success. Suggestion calms the anxious right hemisphere, creating positive emotion. The end result is a more attentive brain. Regardless of the field, be it magic, vocal performance, or instruction, the goal and the technique for reaching that goal is the same. Subtle, positive, focused suggestion that creates an atmosphere of trust.

    Acceptance of Manipulation

    Finally, we come to the trust required for acceptance of direction and suggestion. For, if the audience believes that the magician or trainer does not have their own benefit at heart, direction and suggestion are doomed to fail. The audience subconsciously condones and willingly accepts the manipulation as long as two factors remain in place:

  • The manipulation must be clearly for the audience’s benefit
  • The audience must not be reminded of the manipulation

    The manipulation must be clearly for the audience’s benefit

    Magicians place great emphasis on communicating benevolence to the audience. They suggest supernatural powers but with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. They present their illusions as harmless concoctions for the audiences’ enjoyment. And the audience, knowing the intent is pleasurable emotion, allow themselves to be fooled.

    Trainers also communicate benevolence. Trainees who mistrust the trainer will not engage in the learning. Trainees allow themselves to be controlled as long as they trust the trainer. The moment they suspect the trainer is more concerned with his or her ego then with their benefit, the level of trust plunges. The instructor must additionally focus the learners on the subject at hand, keep the focus on the subject throughout the learning process, and create an environment in which the learners amaze themselves with what they have learned. Instruction is manipulation for the learner's benefit.

    The audience must not be reminded of the manipulation

    A willingness to be manipulated is not the same as a conscious awareness of that manipulation. Audiences and trainees will only accept manipulation if they are not consciously aware of it.

    In order to manipulate the audience without calling attention to that manipulation, suggestion must be employed. The audience's reluctance to be tricked, and the learner's reluctance to be coerced, dictates the need for suggestion. Both Fitzee and Lozanov felt that dictates would be doomed to failure. Fitzee stated:

    “It is utterly impossible to force the spectator’s reason or judgment directly. The spectator must believe he has made his own decision [original emphasis]. This makes it necessary for the magician to use inducement rather than persuasion. ”

    If you reread that quote with the classroom in mind, you can easily see the parallel:

    “It is utterly impossible to force a class to participate directly. The trainee must believe he has made his own decision to learn. This makes it necessary for the trainer to use inducement rather than persuasion. ”

    With these comparisons between magicians and trainers in mind, we will next turn our attention to the placement of magic in the learning environment. Next month’s article, Hocus Pocus Focus Part 2 will focus on four applications of magic in the learning environment.

    To Be Continued in Hocus Pocus Part 2

    Visit Lenn on line at www.offbeattraining.com lennmillbower@offbeattraining.com

    Lenn Millbower, BM, MA, the Learnertainment® Trainer is an expert in applying show biz techniques to learning. He is the author of the ASTD Info-Line, Music as a Training Tool, focused on the practical application of music to learning; Show Biz Training, the definitive book on the application of entertainment industry techniques to training; Cartoons for Trainers, a popular collection of 75 cartoons for learning; Game Show Themes for Trainers, a best-selling CD of original learning game music; and Training with a Beat: The Teaching Power of Music, the foremost book on the application of music to learning. Lenn is an in-demand speaker, with successful presentations at ASTD 1999-2005 and SHRM 2006; a creative and dynamic instructional designer and facilitator formally with the Disney University and Disney Institute; an accomplished arranger-composer skilled in the psychological application of music to learning; a popular comedian, magician and musician; and the president of Offbeat Training®, infusing entertainment-based techniques into learning to keep ‘em awake!

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