Original Publication Date: September 1997
Note from Bill Wisch: I wrote the below in 1997 and I still agree with much of what is written. In 2019, I created a new definition of misdirection which encompassed all of the below. "Misdirection is true, when they believe what you do and then follow you." I hope you enjoy some of my thoughts on misdirection from 25 years ago. - Bill
Last month, I touched on simplicity. Simplicity is vital to the interest level during magical performance. This month I’d like to cover another subject of great importance…misdirection. I consider it the life’s blood of sleight-of-hand-performance.
In 1995 I had the pleasure and honor to lecture in New York City for Assembly #1 for some of the finest and most knowledgeable magicians anywhere. When they asked me to appear they wanted me to cover something that would be new and pertain to the ideas and methods of the great Tony Slydini. I must say I wrestled with what I’d do for quite some time. Then, almost out of nowhere, I remembered what everyone had always said about Slydini…the fact that he was the “master of misdirection”. I knew it, but actually did not know for certain what it was that he did differently from other magicians that actually made him the master of misdirection.
At the lecture I asked the magicians what they felt was the meaning of misdirection. After they got done with the strange looks they actually realized I was serious. One person said it was getting a spectator to look in a different place from where the secret action was taking place. Another said misdirection was an action that took attention to where you, as the performer, wanted it to be. There are, I’m sure, many versions of the same thought…that misdirection takes something someplace. But taking attention away from or to someplace or whatever you do with it is actually a result rather than a cause. In other words…WHAT IS IT THAT TAKES THE ATTENTION AWAY? Most magicians accept the cause rather than the effect…I was one of them.
Slydini was a fantastic actor. His acting ability was so developed that his mannerisms, words and actions always fit his personality perfectly. I believe that the real definition of misdirection is simply ACTING. Think about it. When you move an object from one place to another the audience will follow the action with their eyes. If you move that object in a manner that is suspicious then the audience will become suspicious. If you move that object in a natural manner then the audience will not pay it any mind or think anything was abnormal. Now, if something must be accomplished that you don’t want discovered, then in order to carry out the task, secretly you must act normally with another action; by the other hand; the eyes; the turn of the head; body shifting…ANY normal action that people will notice instead of the secret action. That’s where the acting comes in.
Slydini acted so naturally that any secret action went totally unnoticed…even after having seen the effect many times or even being shown the secret! When you see the term misdirection printed in the instructions for a magic effect or routine try substituting the word ACTING. In fact, the best advice I can give about misdirection is the same I mentioned to the S.A.M. assembly during that lecture…take notice of how you normally do things. It sounds ridiculous but pay strict attention to how you perform natural actions…moving an object…picking up an object…placing an object down…ANY natural action you perform when you do you magic. It’s absolutely amazing how easy it is to divert attention when you think of it as doing a natural action as opposed to having to just DO something to get attention. I remember Slydini freaking out when he saw a well known magician lap a ball during a cup and ball routine by just bringing his hand back to the edge of the table while he moved the other hand. It was on a TV show we were watching and Slydini yelled out, “he didn’t even move his body forward when he moved the object with the other hand!”. The magician had simply moved the hand to the edge of the table and dropped the ball into his lap, and even though he moved another object while he did that, everyone in the viewing audience, magicians and lay people alike, saw and noticed the lapping move.
I could probably beat this premise to death…maybe I already have, but I certainly expect to continue discussing this topic from time to time as other thoughts and ideas come to me. I just wanted to get the basic thought to you so you could think about it at your leisure. One thing for certain…there was a reason Slydini was the master of misdirection…it was all an act. He was a masterful actor and the misdirection just came naturally. It will for you too if you give it some serious thought.