It's near the end of Steve Cohen's chamber magic show, and he reaches for his legendary teakettle. Yeah—here it comes. Our small group has already been gobsmacked by an hour of warp-speed trickery within inches of our bugged-out eyes. A silver dollar turns into a clay brick. Three rings borrowed from fingers in the audience become interconnected. Playing cards disappear here, reappear there, change colors and suits with the wave of a hand.
We're in Cohen's Waldorf-Astoria suite in New York, where on weekends he performs shows for up to 50 people. And we've been waiting for the teakettle. It's the hocus-pocus prop for Cohen's signature Think-a Drink trick, where he pours any requested beverage from this one container.
A woman asks for an apple martini, and Cohen pours one. Someone yells out "Long Island Iced Tea," and that drink comes splashing from the spout. A man wants red wine, and out it comes. Each person sips the requested drink and confirms its authenticity. Shazam—we're talking some serious magic.
Cohen is billed as the "Millionaire's Magician" because of his private shows for megabucks folks like Warren Buffet, Michael Bloomberg, and Martha Stewart. And from years of performing for these powerful people, Cohen has conjured up secrets on how to captivate audiences.
Cohen's a magician, but he's also a salesperson, each night selling the joys of being mystified by his legerdemain. Try using his showmanship secrets to better sell your ideas to bosses, clients, and other decision makers.
1. Surprise, everybody—I'm prepared!
"Advance preparation is one of a magician's key tools," Cohen writes in Win the Crowd. "People expect you'll do the minimum amount of preparation possible. Surprise them by doing a whole lot more."
Preparation begins with getting to know the audience. "When someone hires me for an event, the first thing I do is type the host's name into Google," he says. "I arm myself with as much knowledge as I can about my new client. It's much easier to speak with someone you're already familiar with."
Learn about your decision makers: How they make decisions. Where they find inspiration. And what they do on Saturday night—in other words, their personal tastes. This provides ice-breaker fodder and also helps you align your pitch with their needs and interests.
2. Know what you want to happen.
"As magicians, we plan multiple endings so we can bring the trick to a successful conclusion, no matter how many speed bumps we hit during the show," says Cohen. "This concept of 'knowing the ending' gives you confidence. It lets you expect a positive outcome, no matter how your audience responds."
Are you bracing for speed bumps that might interrupt your pitches? Do you have answers to potential questions? Are you ready to overcome possible objections?
When preparing to pitch, we often start by asking ourselves, "What am I going to say?" A better first question is: "What do I want to have happen?" Once you know the answer, you'll know how to prepare your pitch.
3. Make it look easy.
Every morning since Cohen was 14, he's practiced the Classic Pass, one of card magic's most daunting moves. In addition to perfecting the hand motions, he's learned to relax his arms, jaw, and even his eyes to make the trick look effortless.
"Nobody wants to watch another person make something difficult look difficult," Cohen says. "When we see people labor, it takes away from the experience and doesn't give us confidence in them."
But we marvel when people bring grace and ease to challenging feats. Watch Kobe Bryant shoot baskets, Phil Mickelson swing clubs, or Danica Patrick drive cars. You'll see confident masters making the tough look tame.
Practice until your pitches appear easy. "There's a difference between knowing what you've created and knowing how to sell it," says Don McNeill, president of Digital Kitchen. "Nothing replaces practice."
4. Sprinkle with sprezzatura.
Cohen once showed a card trick to TV magician David Blaine. Blaine loved the trick but hated the presentation, saying it seemed too rehearsed. "People should feel like you're talking to them for the first time," Blaine told Cohen.
Polish your pitches until they're perfect, then add sprezzatura—the Italian concept of studied carelessness. Find ways to come across as organic and accessible, not canned and mechanical.
The poet James Dickey said he prepared 150 drafts of each poem—the first 100 to get it perfect and the last 50 to make it sound spontaneous.
5. Why should they care?
"Beginning magicians think that magic is all about the props," says Cohen. "They quickly lose their audiences because they assume the audience cares about what the magician cares about." But audience members are caught up in their own concerns. They want to know what's in it for them. That's why when you sell an idea, you aren't really selling the idea. What you're selling is the value of that idea to decision makers. And to know the idea's value, you have to see it through your audience's eyes. Focus on their wants and needs, fears, and dreams.
6. Sweetest words in the world.
During his show, Cohen asks the names of audience members. And he repeats those names often, keeping people engaged and participating in his performance.
"People love the sound of their own names," he says. "It's the sweetest sound in the world. To win the audience, work hard to remember names and use them. People will be more receptive to your suggestions and listen to you with greater interest."
7. The eyes have it.
Eyes follow motion, so magicians make large and fast movements to help cover small and subtle movements. "If two objects are in motion, says Cohen, "the human eye is naturally drawn to the faster and broader of the two actions."
This principle of magic can also be used when making pitches. For example:
- If you're seated during your pitch, stand up to make an important point.
- Before discussing a prototype or prop, toss it into the air or hand it to someone. Attention will move to the item.
- If decision makers seem lost in space, drop something like a chart, brochure, or pen. The action instantly pulls people back into the moment.
And if you want your audience to look at something, look at it yourself. "That's one of the fundamentals of magic," says Cohen. "If you look at something, others will also consider it worthy of their attention."
Eye contact is also critical to build connections with audience members. "Don't make the mistake often made by beginning speakers, who simply aim their heads toward clusters of people," says Cohen. "Without eye contact, it is difficult to build trust."
Sam Harrison is a speaker and workshop leader on creativity-related topics. He is author of IdeaSelling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients and Other Decision Makers; IdeaSpotting: How to Find Your Next Great Idea; and Zing!: Five steps and 101 Tips for Creativity on Command. Find him at Zingzone.com
Steve Cohen performs most weekends at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. His book is Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma and Showmanship. For information about Cohen and his shows, visit Chambermagic.com.
[Image: Flickr user pasukaru76]