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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » "That's cool, but why are you doing it?" (3 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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My boss created a monster a couple of months ago when she loaned me a copy of “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. The book is about leadership, but more to the point it's about how people and companies have inspired legions of followers by simply and clearly letting them know why they do what they do. Companies examined in the book include Apple and Nike, as well as other which haven't been so successful.

Chapter 3 of the book starts with a simple diagram that makes total sense to me. It's three concentric circles; the outer one represents “what,” the middle one “how,” and the inner one “why.” The author goes on to argue that so very often, when trying to sell a product or a concept, we focus on “what” and on “how,” but we tend to ignore the “why.” In fact, “how” sometimes takes over to the point that the process becomes an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

I see this all the time at work, and I've mentioned it here in my columns several times. Community theaters often do shows because they're community theaters, and they are community theaters because they do shows. It's a vicious circle that feeds on itself, and the end result is that there is often no clear purpose for the group to exist other than putting on plays and musicals. These groups often have nothing to say, which leads to selecting their season only on the basis of what the board, or the reading committee, likes.

Which, finally, brings me to magic and the people who perform magic tricks.

How often do I see a thread here which goes on and on about a specific effect, and the technical details associated with it, and the theory, and the props, and now and then the story, but rarely the why: the reason for the effect. It's like the prop is an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

And sadly, in more and more cases, it seems to be.

Case in point: Donna has a kitchen blender which has a bunch of buttons on the front panel – and I do mean a bunch. It also has lights and a whole language of beeps. It almost sounds like R2D2. Thankfully it's not self-propelled. But imagine a little scenario where somebody comes over to the house: she brings them over to the kitchen, turns the blender on, and the thing beeps. Then she selects this setting or that setting, and the lights go on and the thing beeps again. Then she puts it on an automatic cycle and it blends away, only to beep again at the end. What would our guest's reaction be?

I can guarantee what it would be: “That's cool, Donna, but what are you going to make with it?”

Now imagine what the guest's reaction would be if Donna said, “Oh, I'm not going to make anything with it; I just like the gadget.”

How does that differ from so many of the presentations we see live or on YouTube?

“Hey, lookit what my box can do.”

Actually, I can think of any number of instances I've seen where the illusion rolls out (often in a puff of smoke) and the performer walks downstage of it, turns his back to the audience, strikes a wide-legged pose, and makes some kind of wave or other grand gesture at the box.

What the heck does that mean? “Behold the box?” The guy might as well kneel in front of it. Geez, sometimes I think the smoke is there because they're burning an offering to The Box.

Then the girl or girls “dance” around the box and finally somebody gets in it, and they proceed to demonstrate The Power of the Box. After which the box rolls back, its job done for the moment. At which point, usually, another box rolls on and the ritual is repeated.

Is this a magic show or a series of rituals based on god-boxes? Is the performer a magician or a tour guide? Is he doing the “magic,” or is the box doing it?

What's the point? What is he saying?

We can see the “what” and the “how” (well, okay, hopefully not the "how"), but the “why” is missing. Why is he doing it?

To amaze? To amuse? To fool? To flabbergast? To entertain? Is that enough to get -- to earn -- legions of fans? Or are these "reasons" just something that the audience expects (and takes for granted) from a magic act anyway?

To paraphrase what I said above about community theaters, “a lot of magicians do tricks because they're magicians, and they're magicians because they do tricks.” It's the same vicious circle. But they still have nothing to say besides, “lookit what my box can do.”

So, in reality, does the audience go home thinking, “wow, this guy is good,” or “wow, this guy has good boxes?”

“Start With Why” is full of points that can apply to magic, or to any entertainment field. For instance, on p. 47 the author writes, “Any company faced with the challenge of how to differentiate themselves in the market is basically a commodity, regardless of WHAT they do or HOW they do it. Ask a milk producer, for example, and they will tell you that there are actually variations among milk brands. The problem is you have to be an expert to understand the differences. To the outside world, all milk is basically the same, so we just lump all the brands together and call it a commodity. In response, that's how the industry acts ... They focus on WHAT they do and HOW they do it without considerations of WHY; we lump them together and they act like commodities … It's a vicious cycle. But only companies that act like commodities are the ones who wake up every day with the challenge of how to differentiate. Companies and organizations with a clear sense of WHY never worry about it.”

Have magic acts become a commodity? The same product, packaged and sold the same way, and perceived as a commodity because the audiences don't have a clue WHY the performers are doing the acts? As the author says elsewhere, one of the problems with commodities is that, after a while, the only thing they have left to complete with is price.

I'm going to suggest that anyone who wants to do a magic act read “Start With Why.” It's only a couple of hundred pages, reads fast, and is available through Put it in your magic library right next to Fitzkee, Nelms, Maskelyne & Devant, and all your other favorite theory books. I ordered my own copy and I'll probably wear it out from reading it over and over.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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Yes, very nice and well-said, and so applicable here.
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