In preparing for my speech at the recent gathering of the BGSSA (Branson Gospel Singers Songwriters Association) I came across a fascinating study. It had to do with the visual versus audio aspects of performance. Although primarily a lesson for musicians, it is something to which magicians and variety entertainers should give attention.
A Social Psychologist of University College London, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shared findings showing people are much more influenced by what they see than what they hear.
This conclusion was based on a study involving twelve-hundred volunteers, including professional musicians and novices, who were asked to evaluate recordings from the top three finalists in ten international singing competitions. Some of the volunteers were given only audio recordings. Some were given only video recordings. From the recordings, whether audio only or video only, the volunteers were asked to pick who they thought were the actual contest winners.
The group given audio only was able to correctly identify a contest winner less than one-third of the time. Their success rate was less than 33%.
This was a surprise. Before the experiment began, more than 83% of the test group had said, “Audio is the key criterion.” Almost all participants were confident, that for a singing competition, it would be easy to pick out the winners just by hearing individuals sing. This did not turn out to be true.
An even bigger surprise came from the group given video only. They heard no vocals nor any sound, yet more than 50% of the time, just from seeing silent video, this group picked the actual contest winners. Their success rate was 53%.
About this unexpected discovery the Social Psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay said, "These findings point to a powerful effect of vision-biased preferences on selection processes even at the highest levels of performance.” (In simpler words…”Audiences are more impressed by what they see than by what they hear, this even applies to comparing super talented performers.”)
About this same study, Daniel Levitin, a Music Neuropsychologist at McGill University in Montreal, said, “For pianists or violinists who toil for countless hours on competition repertoire, the study may be sending a message: go see a stylist or a wardrobe consultant.”
Look again at Mr. Levitin’s observation: “Go see a stylist or wardrobe consultant.” His opinion of the lesson to be learned is, even if it is a music competition, winning may have more to do with style than talent! (An additional observation, reported after the release of the study, was that many musicians were frustrated by the results of the study. They want to think it is all about the music when it turns out it is really about how the music is presented.)
What does this say to other kinds of performers such as magicians? It reinforces a concept some know, some do not know well enough, and some do not seem to understand at all: How we look matters. Wardrobe matters. Gestures matter. Expressions matter. The way a performer dresses himself and presents himself matters.
It contradicts the attitude of more than a few amateur magicians that it is the trick that matters. As long as the trick is good, everything else will be fine. These individuals tend to work hard on moves and technique while neglecting personal appearance and showmanship. They see no problem in wearing street clothes on stage while trying to do a magic show. As far as they are concerned, “Since I am doing some really good tricks, the audience will have no problem viewing me as a magician.”
The study suggests the need for an opposite focus. If performers do not dress for the occasion, the audience may find it hard to take them seriously. The magician will be evaluated as “a guy who can do tricks” rather than a “competent” or “professional” entertainer.
This is not to advocate sloppy moves and weak tricks. The lesson is about the validity of the need to “dress for success.” If we really want to get more shows, especially if we hope for higher-level performance opportunities, we need to “look the part.” Knowing how to properly stand and move, and making the effort to “look good,” is critical to a performer’s career.
If a magician is frustrated by the fact that he can “Do some really great magic,” but no one wants to book him,” maybe it is time to think more about what Chia-Jung Tsay termed “vision-based preference.” The overall look and image of one’s show does matter!
Why not do our tricks extremely well and have great style? Why not practice our “moves” and work on our image? When we excel in both areas we increase the likelihood of being viewed as competent and professional. As well, we will set ourselves up for greater work opportunities and compensation.
- Maybe it is time to invest in a new costume rather than in a new trick
- Maybe it is time to read a book on showmanship rather than one on card sleights
- Maybe it is time to add music, or more and better music, to a show
- Maybe it is time to clean and refurbish some props
- Maybe it is time to rehearse a full presentation, rather than just checking to see if we can remember how a trick works