To be successful at their craft, magicians must possess the well-honed technical skills to pull off their mystifying tricks and clever sleights of hand. But as magician Steve Cohen observes, they must also be “masters at attracting interest, holding attention, and leaving audiences with fond memories of their time together” — skills that everyone can use to persuade audiences, charm dates, own a room, and influence others.
Steve, also known as the Millionaires’ Magician, is the author Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship. Today on the show, Steve shares the insights he and his fellow magicians know on everything from taking command of a room to creating a compelling character to making a magical entrance. Steve shares how to build your boldness through “put pocketing,” develop “spontaneous resourcefulness,” get people wrapped up in the magic of your message by suggesting rather than stating, increase your confidence by having a place for everything and everything in its place, and much more. At the end of our conversation, he shares two of his most interesting tips and explains how to influence people to do what you want by using “layered commands” and the “trailing or.”
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Steve on the Late Show with David Letterman
- A look at what the Chamber Magic show is like on Good Day New York
- AoM Article: Command a Room Like a Man
- AoM Podcast #306: What a Magician Can Teach You About Being More Successful
- AoM Podcast #890: Toastmasters, Aristotle, and the Essential Art of Rhetoric
- AoM Article: A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place
- What’s the Deal With Mickey Mouse’s Ears?
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. To be successful at their craft, magicians must possess the well honed technical skills, to pull off their mystifying tricks and clever slides of hand. But as magicians Steve Cohen observes, they must also be “masters at attracting interest, holding attention, and leaving audiences with fond memories of their time together.” Skills that everyone can use to persuade audiences, charm dates, own a room, and influence others.
Steve, also known as the Millionaires’ Magician, is the author of Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship. Today on the show, Steve shares the insights he and his fellow magicians know on everything from taking command of a room to creating a compelling character, and making a magical entrance.
Steve shares how to build your boldness through “put pocketing,” develop “spontaneous resourcefulness,” get people wrapped up in the magic of your message by suggesting rather than stating, increase your confidence by having a place for everything and everything in its place, and much more. At the end of our conversation, he shares two of his most interesting tips and explains how to influence people to do what you want by using “layered commands” and the “trailing or.” After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/winthecrowd.
All right, Steve Cohen, welcome to the show.
Steve Cohen: Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: So you are a magician and you call yourself the Millionaires’ Magician. Where did that descriptor come from. And how are your magic shows different from say, the ones you might see in Las Vegas?
Steve Cohen: Okay, well, for the past 23 years I’ve been doing a live show in New York City. I’ve also taken it around the world to various other major metropolises, but New York City is my home base. For 17 of those years I performed at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the Penthouse suite. That kind of speaks to the Millionaires’ Magician moniker, is that the people who come to the Waldorf Astoria were really kind of people who were enjoying the finer things in life.
I performed the show at The Waldorf for, as I said, 17, actually 17 and a half years, moved the show to the New York Palace Hotel, which is a really ultra luxury 19th century mansion in the middle of Manhattan, right behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And when people come to the Magic Show, it’s a real experience. It’s not just like you’re going into a conference room or going into, a bar. It’s actually a 19th century parlor, which has gilded ceilings and beautiful marble pillars and Persian rugs.
And the experience is one that you kind of, will think about afterwards as a step back in time. That’s really what differs from my show with a lot of other magic shows, is that I’m trying to honor the history of magic and bring it back to life again. Many times magicians try to be all current and make something which is very of the times. But in my case, we have everyone dress up in cocktail attire and it’s a very elegant and kind of, I wouldn’t say stayed evening because it’s not that at all. It’s really fun, but it is more of a formal dress up affair. And I’ve had many people say to me afterwards, “Why did you make us dress up?” And then when they walk in they say, “Oh, now I get it.” Because you’re in this really ultra luxury 19th century mansion, it looks like you’re walking into Versai.
Brett McKay: So it’s very intimate. So I think maybe people have been to a big magic show. There’s fog machines and lasers maybe some tigers. You’re trying to go back to that where it’s a small room, a group of people, and it’s a very intimate experience.
Steve Cohen: That’s correct. Yeah. The maximum size audience that I perform for at the Palace Hotel for the… My show Chamber Magic is 64 people. So it’s very intimate. You know when anytime you’re under a hundred is intimate.
Brett McKay: So the reason I brought you on is back in 2006, you wrote a book called Win the Crowd. And what it is as you talk about what you do as a magician to practice good showmanship. So being a great magician isn’t just about mastering the technique. That’s an important part. That’s necessary an essential part, but it’s not sufficient. You also need to have charisma, understand psychology, understand presentation. And the things you use as a magician, you make the case, that it can apply to anybody who’s trying to present themselves in the world, whether in business or in their personal life. And in Win the Crowd, you start the book off highlighting what you call your five maxims of magic that can be used to persuade and influence. And the first maxim is, be bold. So as a magician, what does that look like for you?
Steve Cohen: To take risks. Don’t be shy about the actions you take or the words that you speak. And so really what that means to me is that you need to try things that you’ve never tried before, otherwise you won’t get results that you’ve never had before. And so there’s a great magician, his name was Jimmy Grippo. And the legend goes that Jimmy Grippo, was sitting in a bank, just before closing hour, and he saw that the bank manager was about to close the safe that time locked safe. And he just took this bold moment and he took a playing card that he had in his pocket, let’s say it was the three of diamonds. And he just flung it with his hand. He flung it and whipped it and it skirted underneath the door as the safe door was closing. So now inside of this locked safe on the floor is a three of diamonds just sitting there unbeknownst to the bank manager or anyone else in that bank. So now he walks away with a kind of a tingle in his eye and he goes home and thinks, how am I going to take advantage of this?
So the next day he goes back to the bank and he sees this bank manager and he says, “I’d like to show you a magic trick. Remember me from yesterday?” And the manager’s like, “Yeah.” And so he says, “Let me show you a card trick.” And he pulls out a deck of cards that matches the same card back design as the one that he had flung inside the the vault. And he made sure that this bank manager took a card, which was identical, the three of diamonds. There’s magic ways to do that. And after the bank manager took the three of diamonds, he put the card back in the deck and Jimmy Grippo says, “Now I’m gonna make your card disappear and reappear inside that vault.”
And the bank manager says “That’s impossible.” He says, “Well open it up.” And he says, “I can’t open it because it doesn’t open until the time lock opens at 8:00 AM.” So he says, “Okay, we’ll just wait for it.” And they waited, and they opened up the vault and sure enough on the floor is that three of diamonds. And so that’s a miracle. The bank manager, his eyes bulge out of his head, he wouldn’t stop talking about it, and that’s the type of story that would create legends that would actually pay off in great dividends for Jimmy Grippo for years to come. Look, we’re talking about it decades after he’s died.
So you never would really know the outcome unless you gave it a try. And that’s really what boldness means to me as a magician is, unless you try something that may fail, you may not ever actually get any magnificent outcome. Now, having said that, what happens if he goes back to the bank and the manager wouldn’t let him perform a card trick, or what happens if the bank manager took the wrong card, or what if the bank manager said, “Go away. We don’t need to see this now, we’ve got other things going on. I have a managers meeting.” Well, then that’s a lost opportunity, but at the same time, he didn’t really lose anything at all. It was a trial which could eventually turn into something magnificent, and if it fails, it doesn’t harm anyone. So I think that’s really what being bolder is wrapped up in.
Brett McKay: So how can regular people be more bold in their social interactions, do you think?
Steve Cohen: Well, I think part of it is just to overcome your natural tendency to be quiet and to shut up. Just to become a bigger version of yourself. So for instance, let’s say you’re in an elevator and you see some random person just standing there, the likely response would just be to be quiet and not say anything. But if you want to practice being a little bit bolder, one thing that you could do is just say to that person, “Hey, nice sweater you’re wearing there, I like that.” Or maybe that person might respond, “Thank you.” Maybe they’ll think you’re a creep. And maybe they’ll ignore you and just get off the elevator. But what you’ve just done is you’ve built up a little bit of a notch in your belt of being bold, you’ve tried something you haven’t tried before. Now, admittedly, it’s very… That’s a simple drill, all right. That’s not something that would really be some great advancement in your ability to be bold.
However, another example I give in the book, which I love, and I’ve actually done this to people and have it, had it done to me, is what we call the quarter load. And you’ve heard of pickpocketing, people go up to you and they bump into you and they steal your wallet if you’re in the subway or if you’re walking around in a crowded place. That happens, it has happened for centuries. However, this is the opposite. It’s called the quarter load, you’re put-pocketing. You’re putting things into people’s pockets. And again, this is just… It sounds like a joke, it sounds like a gag, it sounds like a ruse, but I’ve done this many times, and I think this can help you build up your courage and your boldness and your ability to feel like you can do things you haven’t done before. So what I do is I walk around with a bunch of quarters in my pocket. And in these days hardly anyone carries change, but I have done this for many years.
And when you see someone, you kinda just tap them, and one of the quarters you’ve had hidden in your hand, I forgot to mention. You hide one quarter inside of your fingers, and when you tap the person, you load the quarter into their jacket pocket. Now it could be their side pocket, it could be their breast pocket, it could be their purse if it’s a woman, it could be a shirt pocket, it could any sort of a pocket, but the idea is to try to load this coin inside of someone’s pocket. Now, why would you do that? It seems like a foolish task for me to give you. What it does is it gives you this giddy feeling that you’ve just invaded their space, that you’re not stealing anything from them, you’re not taking anything from them. In fact, you’re giving them some value, you’re giving them a little bit of money, not very much, admittedly, but you’re giving them something. And at the same time, you’re walking away thinking, I just got away with something, and it’s made me stronger.
And it’s so foolish and it sounds ridiculous, and I’ve heard people say, “That’s how you’re gonna teach someone to become bolder?” And I’ve had people do it to me, and they walk up to me and they’re just talking to me, they pat me on the chest like, “Hey, how is it going Cohen?” And then I go home and sure enough, I find a quarter in my pocket. One man did it to me, he loaded an amethyst crystal into my pocket, and then he emailed me the next day saying, “See, I got you.” And it gave him this sense of power. It gives the people who have done this to me this sense of power. And it’s not much power, but it gives you the feeling of what it feels like to be bold.
Brett McKay: So the second maxim is, expect success. And I think this is it with Grippo, not only was he bold, but he expected success with this trick. And as a magician, when you’re working, how do you go into a show expecting success?
Steve Cohen: Well, I’ve got an interesting story about this. So one of my very close friends unfortunately, passed away at a young age. He was named Mark Sisher, he was a great magician, he had just graduated from college and worked for a couple of years before passing away. But I remember I was living overseas, I was living in Tokyo, Japan at the time, and I got a letter from him because this was before the age of email and before cell phones, this is we are talking decades back. And he sent me a typewritten letter. And in the letter he said, “Steve, I figured out how to perform magic more effectively.”
And what he wrote was that he doesn’t go into his performance venues thinking that it’s an adversarial relationship, but he goes in there assuming that the audience already loves him. And he said, “By assuming that my audience already loves me, then I don’t have to be aggressive towards them to try to push them to like me.” And I thought that was really interesting because magic in general is rather adversarial. I’m gonna fool you, you can’t catch me. Right? That’s what a lot of magic is and the audience, if given that prompt, will probably say, “Okay, I will try to catch you and you’re not gonna fool me.”
So the difference being now, if like my friend Mark Sisher said, if you go in there assuming that people are already going to love you, you’re expecting success. And that changes the tone of the performance. It changes the tone of the engagement that you’re going to have with your audience. Now, having said that, most people who are listening to this, I’m assuming are not magicians. So what would that mean then for someone else? Well, I would like write down, for example, the likely outcomes of what an engagement might be, and think of what’s the best possible way that this can possibly go. So whether you’re having a business meeting or a presentation, think of what the best possible outcome is, and then actually focus on that.
A lot of times we think about what the negative things are, like what can go wrong? You know, never apologize, never panic, never go into something thinking, okay I’m going to… This is gonna fail. I just go into my performances thinking I’ve done this before. I know it’s going to work and it’s going to work. So it’s very… It’s kind of basic. It’s kind of a simple thinking, but if you know what your desired outcome is, then you can veer towards that in the right direction.
Brett McKay: I think oftentimes when people give public speeches, they’re afraid that everyone’s just judging them and looking at all their mistakes. And really, if you think about it, when I’m listening to someone give a speech, I’m rooting for them. Like I want them to do well. Like, I want them to succeed. And even when they have a slip up, I’m not like, “Oh, what a dumb dumb.” I’m just like, “That’s all right. You can recover from this.” And that can happen in social interactions too. I think when you’re interacting with somebody, at least what I am interacting with somebody, I’m not thinking, boy, this person, what a dumb dumb. I’m thinking, Hey, I want this person to do okay here. So I think that mentality can apply to anybody. How do you expect success when things go wrong, right? So I imagine you’ve done thousands and thousands of shows. Not every trick goes off the way it’s supposed to. So what do you do when something doesn’t go as planned so you can still maintain that idea of expect success?
Steve Cohen: Right. Well, here’s the thing. Yes, I have done thousands of shows. In fact, this public show Chamber Magic will be celebrating his 6000th performance this fall, and this is in 2023. So if you’ve done this… The show is nearly two hours long 12,000 hours of performing, lots of things have gone wrong. And because lots of things have gone wrong, I’ve built up kind of a, an arsenal of ways to get around that. Maybe that means that I’m seeing something happen… I see something going south before the audience does. And I have what’s basically a plan B and a plan C, magicians like to call these outs. And an out is basically just knowing a possible ending that would not be the number one desirable ending, but it’s the number two or number three desirable ending. And it could be a little less effective, but it’s still an ending.
So I think that one of the great things that you could do is if you are going to give a presentation or a public speech, if you’re giving any sort of a sales talk, it’s nice to challenge yourself with what could go wrong and then have contingencies. So it’s not worth panicking. It’s not worth apologizing. If something goes wrong you don’t even have to say anything. You just say, okay, let’s try again. I’ve dropped cards, I’ve dropped things in front of an audience. I’ve had props fail when I had important people in the audience. And remember, I’m performing for people who are celebrities, for billionaires, for heads of state, and you don’t wanna be making mistakes in front of these people. But by putting undue pressure on yourself, then most likely you might actually be moving in the wrong direction.
So typically what I like to do is give myself the leeway of making five mistakes. And I learned this from one of my mentors and teachers and friends, is Juan Tamariz a very famous Spanish magician from Madrid, Spain. He says that he gives himself the leeway to make five errors because you know, you’re going… You’re human. You know that you’re liable to make a mistake. So if you make a mistake, why be so hard on yourself? So what Tamariz says is, if you make a mistake, first mistake, you just chalk it off, number one, that’s mistake number one. And you just keep moving forward. As another friend of mine says, it ain’t Shakespeare. So if you make a mistake, it’s okay. And if you make mistake number two and you’re like, okay, that was mistake number two to be expected within my given five mistakes in this show.
Make mistake number three. And you’re like, okay, well hold on a second. Maybe this isn’t the audience. Maybe this might be me. Let me really kind of drill down here and focus on what’s going wrong. Mistake number four, I actually have never gotten that far. But I would probably be thinking to myself, maybe I shouldn’t have drunk that beer before this show. [laughter] And then mistake number five would be like, okay we’re on red alert, but still within the range of allowables. So the point being, if you know that you’re human, which we all are, it’s okay to make a mistake, and audiences are forgiving. And even with a magic trick where if someone sees the hidden handkerchief sticking out of your hand, it’s like, okay, well how else would I do the trick? Of course I have two, but that makes it much harder to make them both disappear and then make both the handkerchiefs disappear. So there’s lots of different ways that you can think on your toes to just kind of get out of something if you made a mistake. And that’s just being resourceful. I like to call it spontaneous resourcefulness. And that goes into another one of my maxims, which is be prepared. And we could talk about that one later.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well we’ll talk about it, I think that’s the last one you have there. Okay. So expect success, go in with a positive attitude. Think about how things can go right and then have contingency plans if things don’t go according to the original plan. The third maxim is don’t, suggest. So flesh that out for us. What does that look like?
Steve Cohen: Okay, well, this is something that I’ve actually learned with the character that I have created, which is the Millionaires’ Magician. So the Millionaires’ Magician doesn’t necessarily mean that we check people’s bank balances at the front door when they’re checking in. But I am a chara… I’ve created a character, and I portray a character on stage. And what I like to think of is anyone, when you’re in front of an audience, is playing a character. Maybe it’s just an enlargement or enhancement of yourself when you’re off stage or when you’re not in front of an audience, but you’re basically creating a visual and an auditory vision of what you should be like… What you want your audience to take away. So do you want your audience to think of you as someone conservative, as someone funny? Do you want them to think of you as an open collar person versus a button down collar person. You know, neck tie, no neck tie. Dress, no dre… Casual clothes. I personally am wearing a tuxedo when I perform. I wear an evening wear, or sometimes I wear a morning suit. And what it does is suggests how I expect my audience to behave with me.
If I were wearing a t-shirt and jeans and black sneakers when performing in my venue, it wouldn’t make sense. If I was a character in a book or a movie, the author wouldn’t write about… It would be such a disconnect to have someone casual in such a formal environment. So the venue, plus my attitude, plus my clothing, plus the way I groom myself and the way I speak, all of these kind of suggest that the audience should act a certain way toward me. And fortunately, by making this large stage that people are coming into, they’re stepping into a scene in a play in a way. And that’s how I like to think of suggesting as opposed to stating. We don’t tell people, “You’re going to be stepping back in time, walking into a 19th century parlor.” We just… Once they walk in, they kind of discover it themselves. And then they react in the way that I’ve kind of set them up to.
And I think that’s actually a better mechanism rather than for me to force it down their throat, that would be kind of an insult to your intelligence. You know, if I just said to you, “I possess magical powers and you’re going to believe in my special abilities.” People would say, “Come on, who do you think you are?” But if I slowly wrap them up into this world where they start seeing incredible things happen and they realize that this is a step out of reality, then they enter my world. And I’ve seen this, not only in magic, I’ve seen great sales people do this. Even if you go to a seminar like let’s say Tony Robbins or someone who’s a motivational speaker. During the time that you’re with that person, you are wrapped up in their world, and it’s not because they forced you to, but it’s because you responded to the suggestions that they made.
Brett McKay: Okay so if a regular person… If you want people to treat you with respect and authority, then dress that way, act that way, don’t tell people, “You have to respect… ” Yeah, usually if you have to tell people, “You must respect me.” You’ve lost already.
Steve Cohen: Of course, of course. I remember what… This happened one time, I had a very horrible performance, it was in Long Island. This women’s event that I got hired to do, and they were not there to watch a magic show, they were there to kibitz with each other, and they were there to… It was some sort of a… Like a flea market type of thing that… I don’t even know why they hired me to perform at it, but it was just an awkward environment for me to perform in. And all through the show, the audience was not really paying attention, they were just chit chatting with each other.
And at one point I realized I can’t go on, I can’t continue this performance. I was standing on a platform and nobody was paying attention. So I stopped the show and I walked off and then this lady who had hired me walked on and said, “Come on everyone. This guy is really good. You should pay attention to him, you should pay attention to him. He’s really good”. And I walked back up on stage and it was even worse because by begging, it just… The whole thing fell apart. So yeah, that was an example of trying to convince someone with your words that you’re good is not as good as trying to convince them just by your suggestions.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show.
So the fourth maxim is practice, practice, practice. Walk us through the amount of practice you have done and still do as a magician. What does your practice process look like?
Steve Cohen: Okay, so I’m practicing all the time. I’ve been doing magic since I was 6, I’m now 52. And there’s not a day that goes by where I’m not with a deck of cards in my hands or practicing with coins or other small objects. Sometimes I’ll practice a move, a sleight of hand move with a deck of cards for example, for years before I’m ready to really include it in my performance. And the idea is to make the moves so smooth and so subtle that they become invisible to the audience. Not only wouldn’t they be able to see them, but they wouldn’t even be able to sense them or be able to realize that there is any sort of tension in my hands. Really that’s what the human eye responds to is tension, right? If you see something tense up, then you think, “Oh, there must be something going on there. I have to pay attention.”
So really what I’m trying to do with my magic is perfect the moves, refine them to such a degree that they really kind of disappear from your suspicion. So practice for me is something that’s fun. I think that practice should be an enjoyable experience. Of course, it could be grueling, and at the end of the day, you might be sweaty. But that procedure of pushing yourself to get better and better, should be something that’s enjoyable. And if you don’t enjoy the craft, maybe trying something else might be a better use of your time. If you don’t enjoy the hard work that you have to put into something in order to enjoy the spoils, then maybe that craft might not be the one for you. So what I like to do is I just practice in isolation, sometimes I’ll practice something with my eyes closed. After I’ve perfected the sleight, I’ll practice it without looking. And other times I’ll practice it without speaking, so kind of isolating the different skills rather than performing the move with my patter, which is the language that magicians use to back up the trick.
And sometimes I’ll just perform it in silence and just go through the entire routine, which can be a 8-minute performance silently, almost like a silent movie. Sometimes I’ll just put the props away and do it without any emotion. I’ll just do it in my head, or I’ll just say the words aloud, and then I’m focusing on the language. So most importantly though, I think is what I call PP. And PP is people’s practice or people practice. When you perform in front of people, that’s when you really can understand what all of this means and how it will play out in the real world. So performing in front of a mirror or in front of a video camera is great, and it’s a necessity before you perform in front of an audience. But you never really learn until you perform in front of living breathing people. And I’ll be honest, there’s been times where I thought a trick would go really well by practicing, and then I get in front of people and they can see through it instantly. And I’m like, “What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong?”
And the fact is, I just only practiced it in isolation. I didn’t get it in front of real people. And you learn by listening to the audience. I remember one time David Copperfield came to my show at the Waldorf Astoria where I started. And Copperfield and I spent time probably two hours afterwards and he said to me, “You can’t write a show like that. What you just put on was a show that was responding to the audience. And you’ve listened to the audience for so many years that you learned what works and you’ve learned what doesn’t work.” And he was right. I’ve never actually written a script for the show. I mean now I’ve transcribed the show, but I never wrote… Sat down and wrote every word out. But I listened to the audience and I listened to what they responded to. And therefore, it became more of a success.
Brett McKay: When you’re doing this, people practice when you first start out, let’s say you’re doing a new trick, you’re not going to your main event show, the Chamber Show. Are you going to maybe like just random people with low stakes to do that?
Steve Cohen: That’s one way to do it. That’s one way to do it. The challenge that I have right now is I have an audience that expects something… They expect nothing but excellence. If they’re paying top Broadway money to come to see my show, which it is. There was a time when we were charging $750 per ticket to the show. Now we’ve lowered it back down to a more reasonable range of between $125 and $350 per ticket. So we’re talking still a significant investment. You’re not expecting to see someone try things out for the first time. This shouldn’t be the venue, the playground where he’s trying out his experimental work. So I do need to have a place to perform and try out these things. And that could be as simple as trying out a magic trick for my family. Or it could be trying out some magic for my dry cleaner at the dry cleaning shop, or it could be just even… Not even performing the trick, but just telling people about it. And sometimes by telling people about it, then it actually helps to find what people find intriguing about it. Without even performing the trick.
So I know… I’ve experienced this, I’m friends with David Blaine, and I remember when David Blaine would talk about his upcoming stunt, he would tell people about it and tell people about it, and he would see what people were excited by. So if he’s saying like, “I’m going to stand on top of a pillar.” People go, “Oh, okay.” “I’m gonna stand on top of a pillar for 72 hours.” People go, “Oh, really?” He’s, “Yeah and there’s not going to be anything there for me to hold on to. And if the wind comes, I can just be blown off the top of this pillar.” And then he sees the audience go, “Oooh.” And you see, by learning what makes the audience go, “Oooh.” You know, you don’t even have to be performing it. You could just be telling the story of something. And by telling the story of something before you actually do it in front of the target audience, you learn in advance what’s intriguing to other people.
Brett McKay: And I imagine, you know, you talk about how regular people can apply this. If you are given a presentation, you just want to practice that over and over again, and then do it in front of people too, do it in front of family members, low stakes. Another thing that I thought of as I was reading that section on how non-magicians could practice, in front of people with low stakes, let’s say you want to get better at public speaking. Toastmasters. We had a guest on the show who wrote a book about Toastmasters. Great place to go. Everyone’s there to get better and give you feedback. There’s no stakes involved. But he found that actually doing the public speaking, that’s how you got better at it. So you can do the same thing as a regular person that a magician does.
Steve Cohen: Correct, correct. You get good at something by doing it. I mean, it’s as simple as that. There’s no real substitute for what Penn Jillette often calls flight time on stage. You know, as a pilot, you get your pilot’s license by the number of hours you’ve flown, and the same thing with skydiving, right? You know, by the number of jumps you’ve done. So it’s the same thing on stage. The more that you’re on stage, the more you’re actually paying yourself to become a better performer.
Brett McKay: All right, so the final maxim, and we just mentioned it a while back ago, was be prepared. So as a magician, what does this look like?
Steve Cohen: Well, you know, when I walk into any room, the first thing I start to do is I look around and see what’s there. And I’m a magician so I… You know, I should be able to do magic with anything. So I look around and I see, “Oh, here’s a salt shaker. Over there, there’s a piece of newspaper. Over here, this person’s wearing a diamond ring. That woman has earrings on. This guy’s got a Submariner watch.” And I’m thinking like, “What can I do with any of those objects?” And I have a kind of a mental Rolodex that I go through and I think, “Okay, I know tricks with a watch. I know tricks with a salt shaker. I know tricks with a newspaper.” And now I’m starting to formulate things in advance so that when it comes down to the time of performance, which may be half an hour from now. I’m never caught unaware. And that’s the beauty of it is that you’re kind of… I’m a boy scout I was actually an Eagle Scout when I was younger in Troop 174 from Yorktown Heights, New York. And so, you know, the slogan of the Boy Scouts is to be prepared.
And I really think that’s key to being a magician, having months, maybe even years of planning in advance before the audience even knows that there is a performance being given. Michael Weber, a well-known magician, says that you have to be so far ahead of the game that the audience doesn’t even know there’s a game being played yet. And I really love that. I think that you have to really just be thinking several steps ahead. And what it boils down to is just knowing your audience. Like when I go into an audience or when I’m performing for people, I like to know what kind of a crowd this is.
So maybe in advance, I might just look at the sales list for the day and say, “Okay, where are these people coming from? Oh, okay, we have people coming from California. We have people coming from France. We have people who are visiting from China. We’ve got people who are visiting from the tri-state area.” It helps me to know the audience in advance and I like to call that the ‘get to know you’ technique. It’s just really like having a little bit of rapport before the audience realizes that there is a need to have a rapport. And that preparation will help you out even before you arrive.
Brett McKay: So you have a chapter that’s all about building up conviction and confidence in yourself. Why is that important for you as a magician in order to win the crowd?
Steve Cohen: Well, think about it, people want to be around people who are confident and who are almost larger than life. I think that it’s more interesting to be around people who are sure of themselves, right? I mean when you walk into any sort of an event or if you’re going to be giving a presentation again we don’t want someone who is a self-proclaimed failure to be giving us advice. We want someone who’s going to be rather accomplished giving us advice because maybe we might learn something from them. We’re always more interested in people who are bringing something to the table that we don’t personally already have. So that’s one of the beauties of being a magician, is that people aren’t exposed to magic every day. So when they come across someone who’s a magician and this person appears to be a good magician, then they’re probably going to be excited to be with you. And that’s really what it is. It’s kind of building up the excitement of being in your presence. And again, you don’t want to make it like you’re fishing for their approbation, or you wanna make it so that they just feel excited to be around you because you seem like a fun person, or you seem like an intelligent person, or you seem like someone who brings something to their life that they don’t already have.
Brett McKay: And how do you develop that confidence and conviction?
Steve Cohen: Once again, it boils down to being sure in your work, thinking that your own work is important. I’ll put it this way… Actually, there’s a great story. I’m gonna, tell you this story that’s… It’s in the book, so I’ll read it to you the way I wrote it, it’s actually pretty concise. So there are three brick layers, and someone asks the three laborers, what are you doing? And the first brick layer says, “I’m laying brick.” And the second brick layer says, “I’m making $10 an hour.” But the third brick layer says, “Me, I’m building the world’s greatest cathedral.” And I really love the attitude of that third brick layer because he knows that his work is important to himself. So being a magician is not on the highest list of people’s prestigious occupations.
I remember going through customs in London one time. I was arriving for a performance, and the customs agent said to me, after looking at my passport, what do you do for a living? And I said, “Magician.” And he laughed at me and he pointed at my ski cap, and he said, “What, are you gonna pull a rabbit out of your ski cap? Come on, what’s your real job?” And I had to tell him, “I’m really a magician, but I’m proud of that.” And being proud of your work, thinking that your work is important, thinking that you do a first rate job, that’s important. You can say to yourself even, there’s a mantra you can say, “I am important. I perform my work with dignity. I do a first rate job every day.” And it’s important to think that your work is important.
And whether you’re a banker, whether you’re a salesperson, whether you’re a performer like me or anything you do, you never say, “I’m just a blank.” “I’m just a clerk.” “I’m just an analyst.” Basically you have to put a top hat on your head mentally and think, “I’m a magician.” Not a literal magician but, “I do things in a magical way. I do things with power. I do things with confidence.” And by telling yourself that you kind of make yourself into a little bit of a celebrity. And no one wants to walk around thinking like, “Oh I’m an A-list celebrity,” if you’re not. But if you think of yourself as someone with power and ability and maybe even a sense of beauty and it just builds your own confidence. You could do that by dressing a certain way. You could do that by speaking with… By puffing up your chest. And it makes you just feel a little bit more confident. And then you’ll see the response of people. And when people respond that way, it kind of is a feedback loop.
Brett McKay: Okay? So again, you have to… Kind of have to… You have to maybe suggest to yourself. Don’t state to yourself. Suggest to yourself that you are confident, right? So dress the way and act the way…
Steve Cohen: Exactly.
Brett McKay: You talk about in the book, move deliberately and with conciseness. That can also help bolster your confidence.
Steve Cohen: I agree. I remember one time I had a superintendent in my building in New York City, one of my early… One of my first apartments. And this guy really did not know what he was doing. He was kind of a… Just a bumbling super. Meaning that he didn’t really know how to screw a screw into the wall. And if he was reaching for his screwdriver in the toolkit, he didn’t even know where it was. He had to dig around and find basic tools, and then he didn’t know where to… “Did I have a Phillips head screwdriver or a flathead screw… ” He really was just clueless. And I realized, I can’t trust this man to help me with fixing my sink because it’s not gonna hold. Later on, that guy got fired. Not surprised.
And then they hired a new super, and this super was really on top of things. So when he reached for the screwdriver, it was where he expected it to be. And when he was putting together the cabinet that I needed him to help me fix it went together. 1, 2, 3. Snippity snap. And it had to do with the fact that he was confident and he acted deliberately. He knew where things were. And it gave me a sense of confidence as a resident in his building. So when I’m performing my shows, I like to have things always in the same place. So if I reach, I don’t even need to look where my hand is moving. I know that an object is where it is because it’s always there. And I have the luxury of always performing, of course, in the same venue.
So if I put something down, it’s going to always be in the same spot. I don’t have to fungo fumbling for it or looking for it. So the audience sees that I’m a confident person because there’s no hiccups. I just reach for something. It’s always there. I’m able to do what I do with an intent. And what I also like to do, and I mentioned this also in the book, is to speak to myself, “Is this how an important person would say this? Or is this how a powerful person would act? Would my boss act this way? Would my customer act this way? And would a successful person argue over this or not?” And so by mentally framing these things in your head and then adjusting the way that you speak or present it, you’re actually leading yourself into a successful path.
Brett McKay: So one of my favorite chapters in the book was all about how to command a room. And this is useful advice for someone who’s presenting in front of an audience, giving a pitch at a business meeting, or giving a public speech, or I think it also apply just to an everyday social interactions. And so this idea of commanding the room, the first step you say you have to do as a magician is you have to own the stage. As a magician, how do you own the stage so that you can command the room?
Steve Cohen: What I like to do is, first I like to always arrive at the venue early and tread the boards. The boards meaning the stage, right? That’s the actors’ vernacular for walking onto a stage. So I like to walk on the stage and just get the feel for what the space is like, how deep is the room? How wide is this space? Do I need to step up steps before I walk onto the stage? Will there be a backstage area? Is there a green room? I just need to know all about the parameters that I’ll be performing in first so that there’s no surprises. Like, that’s really one of the key things I think about being a pro, is reducing the number of surprises in your presentations. So that by the time you actually get up there in front of an audience, you’re able to focus on the people and the interaction and the give and take with your audience. As opposed to, is this glass of water gonna tip over if I move my arm out? Or does the stage have a squeaky floor, or am I gonna walk too far towards the audience and possibly fall off stage? Knowing all these things in advance just reduces the number of variables, so that when you get up there, you’re not gonna really be worried too much.
Brett McKay: I think that’s really good. So I think if you’re giving a public speech, I think that’s useful advice too. You get up there early, know what the stage looks like, make sure you know where the podium’s gonna be. And you can even… If you wanna own the stage, you can probably maybe move things around, right? “Well I don’t like this, let’s move this around.” That can help instill some more confidence in yourself.
Steve Cohen: I agree. One way that you can do this, even in your own life, when you’re just sitting at a table, let’s say you’re having a business meeting or business talk at a restaurant. So I like to think of the interaction as kind of like a control of the real estate of that table. And people don’t often think about this, but you can move things around on tables, that you have more space. You can move the glass out of the way, you can move the flower vase out of the way, you can move the salt shaker out of the way. You can move the plates and stack them up, you can move the fork so that you have more room. And even just subtle things like this show that you’re owning your environment. So again, these are not overt things, you don’t say like, “Look, I’m gonna take over this table, therefore I own this conversation,” it’s not that overt, it never is. A lot of what being a magician is is about making these implications of power. And the implication of power then kind of gives a little bit of a hint or a clue for someone to respond to you just that little bit differently.
So I do this oftentimes, I’ll make the space mine, and by making the space mine, I just feel like there’s less that’s going to impede me from moving forward in the way I planned. So I think that’s a little tiny tip that you can try, it doesn’t cost you anything. Right? When you’re at a restaurant, you know just try that, even when you’re out with… On a date or you’re with your family, it doesn’t take any extra effort. But you might just feel a little different and a little more powerful because you’ve done something to create your own space. Now, when I walk on stage… You asked about how do you command the room. I have ways of walking in that I use, and I’ve learned this, again, from my teacher, Juan Tamariz, who’s a teacher not only to me, but to thousands of magicians around the world, but has fortunately become a personal friend. So Tamariz taught this great technique, when you walk on stage, to fan the room So usually when you walk on, you’re not walking on from the back of the auditorium or the back of the audience towards the front, you’re walking on from the side where you have to… Let’s say the audience is in front of you, you’re walking onto the stage from either left stage… From stage left or stage right. And so let’s say you’re walking on from stage right, so you’re walking on up maybe a few steps or maybe just onto the stage, and the audience will see your profile if you’re looking at stage left, they’ll only see your profile. But wouldn’t it be great if every person can see the front of your face, a full frontal view, to give your smile a chance to shine? Well, the way that you do that is when you’re walking on stage, you start looking at the audience that’s furthest to your left, if you’re starting from the right, and then as you get to the center stage, you fan your face, meaning you turn your head all the way towards the area where you walked on. So you’re giving the entire, almost 180-degree circle or a half circle of your face to the entire audience. And they’re now able to see you and experience you with your smile and light in your eyes, rather than just your profile. And it just gives you more of a connection right away.
There’s an interesting thing I didn’t write about in this book, but I’ve learned since, is if you watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon, like anything… A Walt Disney animation, you’ll see that Mickey Mouse’s ears are always full circles or often full circles, I’m sure there’s exemptions to this. But oftentimes what’ll happen is even if he turns his head left or turns his head right, you’ll still see these full circles of his ears because that’s the iconic Mickey Mouse pose and face and image and icon that we’ve become familiar with. So it’s in a similar way, imagine if you’re able to show your face to every audience, every part of the audience, no matter where they’re seated, in the left, right, middle, back, center, when you walk on. And that’s how you do that by fanning the room.
Brett McKay: Oh, another tip that I liked in there about walking onto the stage is that you don’t start from a dead stop. You actually start walking when you’re off stage, so that when you hit on stage, it looks more like you’re floating and not sort of getting started. And that… It just adds some dynamism to your presence.
Steve Cohen: Right. So one of the things, I like to call it is the invisible step. So, again, let’s say that you’re walking on stage from behind a curtain, rather than just standing still and then walking on, which means that you’re kind of ramping up to your full speed and your full kind of energy, take a couple of steps back from the curtain and start the advancement onto the stage from several feet away from the edge of the stage. So by the time that you hit the curtain and you’ve broken the curtain line, now the audience sees you coming out in a powerful and energetic way. Now, I learned this the hard way from being on the David Letterman show. I was a guest on Letterman when he had Close-up Magic Week. And if you haven’t seen my performance of that on YouTube, you should check it out, it was a really great experience.
But I remember standing backstage, and I was kind of petrified because this is at the Ed Sullivan Theater, I’m backstage, this is where the Beatles performed, I mean, come on, I was pretty intimidated. And Biff Henderson, who is the stage manager, he shoved my shoulder when it was time for me to walk on. So I heard Letterman say, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Steve Cohen.” And then Biff Henderson shoves me, and my first step onto the stage was a stumble. And I stumbled on and then got my pace and kept on walking to center stage. So why am I telling you this? It looked stupid. And I mean, maybe didn’t really feel that… Or didn’t look that bad to the viewer at home, but when I look at it, I was like, “Man, I did not have control over that entrance.” Someone else controlled the entrance for me, and that’s not how I wanna walk on stage. So now I have this solid rule that by the time they see me break into the spotlight, I’m walking in in full energy capacity. And I think that’s done by taking a few steps off stage before entering on stage.
Brett McKay: So in a magic show, there’s the trick itself, right? And that’s the technique is important, but an important part to make the trick work is the patter, like the words you’re using while you’re doing the trick, because it’s gonna help direct people’s attention where you want it to be. And it also just makes it more engaging. In the book, you give some specific things that you do when you’re writing your patter, your script to be persuasive. Like some of these things were interesting, like one is you used what’s called layered commands. So instead of saying to someone, “Here, hold this card.” You’ll say, “Stand up and hold this card.” There’s two commands there. Stand up and hold this card. What is about putting two commands that helps you be more persuasive as a magician?
Steve Cohen: People think that patter is just the banter, the idle language that magicians use to kind of distract you from what’s really happening. But the fact is, it’s all serving the end purpose of a successful demonstration of magic is that the language has to support the magic, the handling, and the handling has to support the language. They have to really coexist in like kind of a symbiosis. So there’s no magic words like Alakazam or hocus pocus or abracadabra that will really create magic. But there are patterns of language that you can use, even if you’re not a magician, to kind of create a magical outcome. So this concept of a layered command, which is basically a command, the word and, and another command, it makes it harder for people to say no to either one of those two commands. So for example, if I were to say to you, stand up, it’s easy for you to resist and say, “Well, no, why?” And if I were to say, “Here, hold the end of this rope.” A person says, “Well, why? What am I gonna… What do you want me to do?” They can resist it.
But if I say, “Stand up and hold the end of this rope,” people will not really deny either of those. They’ll simply stand up and hold the rope. And it’s kind of uncanny. It’s something you should really give a try to. I mean, you can try it again, not just if you’re a magician, because most people listening to this aren’t magicians. But you could try it, let’s say with your kid if you could say, “Take out the garbage and close the door when you go out.” And so take out the garbage, they might say no to. Close the door behind you when they go out, they might say no to. But take out the garbage and close the door. It’s like, okay, there’s two commands. It’s almost short circuits the ability to say no. And in the office, “Finish this project and let me know when you’re done.” They’re not gonna not finish the project, they’re not gonna not let you know when you’re done because you’ve given them two commands. “Come over here and give me a kiss.”
By the way, don’t use that at the office. When you’re on a date, “Come over here and give me a kiss.” These are small little things you can try. Now does it work every time? No. But will it work? Yes. And it’s actually fun to try these layered commands and see what works for you. Nothing is an exact science, but it could work. And when it does work, it actually… You can see if you can make it work again, because what works for you is not gonna work for me and vice versa.
So you give these layered commands, it’ll give you the feeling of being an authority figure. It helps you appear stronger. And yeah, I think that’s a really fun one to try. Now, another magic word, so to speak, which I might recommend your listeners use, if you wanna give this try yourself, Brett, it might be fun, is to use what I call the trailing or. And I use this all the time in my work, and anyone could use this. It’s not just limited to magicians. I say, “Would you like to shuffle the deck or… ” And then it’s just dot dot dot. Now the answer at that point would likely be no. So I say, “Would you like to shuffle the deck of cards or… ”
And the reason is because in people’s heads they’re finishing the sentence, the last word would be not, right? So would you like to shuffle the deck or not? But since I never say the word, not, they say out loud, “No.” So that’s where it starts to become an interesting thing. “Would you mind if I eat the last piece of pizza or… ” And people will say, “No, go ahead.” “Will there be a problem with that or… ” And the people will say, “No, no, no, there’s no problem.” “Do you mind if I leave a little early or… ” And you see people will say, “Sure.” It just feels like the natural ending to the sentence, not. And since people are saying it in their own head, they just will say no. Now, if you shrug your shoulders a little bit and kind of like shake your head, no, as you’re saying it, it also kind of gives them more of an incentive to respond, no. And it… Just try this, I’m telling you, it’s a fun project to try on your own. You can just drop it in today to your conversation and see if it actually works in your favor.
Brett McKay: Well, Steve, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Steve Cohen: Well, let me tell you a little secret.
Brett McKay: Oh, that’s another one.
Steve Cohen: You can go to…
Brett McKay: That’s another one.
Steve Cohen: Chambermagic.com. That’s one of my other magic words. The moment you say, let me tell you a little secret, people will lean in, they’re gonna now wanna know what your secret is. So even if you’re not a magician, again, like you… Everyone’s got a secret, right? We all have secrets that we don’t want people to know to see. So if you say to someone, “Let me tell you a little secret, I really shouldn’t tell you this, but promise me you won’t tell this to anyone, but you can find more about me at chambermagic.com,” right? So now people are like, oh, wow, this is something that we weren’t supposed to hear, we weren’t supposed to know about. When people say, let me tell you a secret, it means pay attention. So I like to use that expression a lot.
By the way, the show runs every weekend at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, which is a really grand hotel in the middle of New York City. The show runs 250 live performances every year. So I’m always there, every Friday and every Saturday, and it’s a really fun place. If you do come to the show, please don’t hesitate to walk up and tap me on the shoulder and say that you heard about it from this conversation. I love to meet people before, during, and after the show. And as you can see, yeah, I try to be as personable and as welcoming as I can to anyone who comes. So please, yeah, if you do come, let me know that you heard about it from this.
Brett McKay: And maybe they can try to put a quarter in your pocket too while they’re at it.
Steve Cohen: Yeah, absolutely, that’s the thing. Definitely drop a quarter in my pocket. I will act surprised.
Brett McKay: Well, Steve Cohen, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Steve Cohen:My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
Brett McKay: My guest, it was Steve Cohen. He’s the author of the book Win the Crowd. It’s available on amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, chambermagic.com. Also, check it our show us at aom.is/winthecrowd, where you find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com. Where you’ll find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code “manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.