Six Selling Secrets From Magicians


If you think that magicians and neuroscientists have little to talk about, you’d be wrong: both deal with issues like attention and consciousness, albeit in a different way. And, as it turns out, marketers can learn from both groups, and in particular, from understanding why magicians can fool us even when we are trying to pay attention.

Here are a few ways that magicians exploit our mental processes that can be used by marketers not to trick customers, but to better engage them and hold their attention:

1. People Focus on Only One Thing

I consider myself a multi-tasker, and no doubt most Neuromarketing readers would say the same about themselves. But the success of stage magicians show that we can only REALLY pay attention to one thing at a time. Many illusions are based on the magician showing you something with one hand while doing something you don’t notice with his other hand.

Neuroscientists compare our attention focus to shining a spotlight on something – we see what is lit, and lose focus on everything else. The term “tunnel vision” is particularly apt to how people focus on one small area at a time.

Marketers need to be sure they have their target’s attention where they want it. If the customer is distracted by something external, or worse, by something else the salesperson is doing (or that is happening in an advertisement), the key point of the pitch will be missed. Don’t let (or make) your customer multitask when you need his attention on your message!

2. Motion Attracts our Attention

Ever wonder why doves are such popular props with magicians? I’m sure their docile nature and willingness to tolerate being stuffed in a pocket are important, but the explosive burst of white, flapping wings as they fly off is guaranteed to draw every eyeball in the audience. The ability of the birds to hijack the viewers’ attention gives the performer a window of opportunity to set up the next stage of his illusion.

Our brains are wired to respond to motion – in prehistoric times, movement might be a threat, or perhaps food. Whether you are presenting to a group, selling one-on-one, or designing a TV commercial, use motion to grab the attention of your audience and focus it where you want it.

3. Big Motions Beat Little Motions

If you were watching a magician standing on the stage and he made a small, quick move to his pocket, you would certainly notice it. Magicians know that, and prevent you from seeing their small moves by distracting you with a big move – pulling a colorful scarf out using a sweeping gesture with their other hand. They know the audience will tune out the small move in favor of paying attention to the big one.

Particularly if you are dealing with an audience that may be distracted, use BIG motions to snap them to attention.

4. The Unexpected Attracts Us

When I watch a magician, I’m always trying to pay close attention to spot any shady moves. So is the rest of the audience. It’s rare to spot a skilled magician’s tricks, though, not just because of the distraction techniques described above but also because he is disguising some moves as “expected” actions. For example, if he scratches his ear, shoots his cuffs, or makes another move we are familiar with, our brains tune it out as expected and uninteresting. That move may well mask a transfer of a prop or some other preparation step. On the other hand, if he placed his palm on top of his head or raised his left arm for no apparent reason, we’d all be watching carefully.

Much as our brains focus on motion, they also focus on novelty. Surprising your customer with an unexpected move, a novel sound, or unfamiliar image will get her to look at and analyze what she is seeing. That’s true even with text – “New!” is one of the most attention-getting words in advertising (See The Power of New!).

5. Mirror Neurons Engage Us

One reason we don’t notice when a magician scratches his nose but slyly palms a coin that was hidden in his mouth at the same time is that we KNOW what it feels like to scratch our nose. When he is performing that action, if we notice at all, our mirror neurons are lighting up as if duplicating that action ourselves. Magicians exploit this phenomenon with “decoy actions” – appearing to take a drink, for example, but really passing an item from mouth to hand in the process. Our brains aid the deception by playing along with the decoy activity.

Even though marketers aren’t normally trying to disguise sneaky actions, there is a lesson here. When people see someone performing a familiar action, either in person or by video, their brains will engage as their mirror neurons kick in. Selling soft drinks? Let people experience opening the bottle, raising it to their lips, and taking a drink. Magicians know how familiar physical actions engage our brain, and you should too.

6. Cut the Chatter

If you’ve ever been to a magic show, either on a stage or close-up, you know that the magician often keeps talking. Good magicians will talk about what they are doing, why it is difficult, and so on, while their hands are busy with the trick. Their purpose, of course, is not to give you real information about their technique but rather to distract you. In essence, the magician’s patter is another stream of information for your brain to process, and the overload makes it less likely that you will spot what is really happening.

While a stream of chatter serves the magician’s purposes, excessive verbiage may distract your customers from your selling points. Have you ever had a salesperson who wouldn’t shut up while you were examining a product? It’s hard to look at, say, a car’s control panel while a salesperson is spouting a stream of inane babble. Salespeople should be trained not just what to say, but when to say it. And when not to. And in other media, like commercials, be aware that the voiceover shouldn’t conflict with important information on the screen.

Death by Bullets. Even Powerpoint jockeys can learn from magicians’ patter – lengthy text bullets in a presentation are a perfect example of distraction. Trying to read the text while the speaker is making the same point verbally causes low comprehension and recall because the brain is too distracted to do a good job with either task.

Magic has likely been around in some form at least as long as marketing, and we marketers would do well to learn from its practitioners! (Note – some of the content in this post is based on information from Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, by Stephen L. Macknik. Susana Martinez-Conde, and Sandra Blakeslee.
Image via Shutterstock

  1. Mark Dykeman says

    Great post. One of my favorite books by a magician is Advantage Play by David Ben. That book’s focus is on creative problem solving, but it does touch on some of the topics that you mention here (i.e. sleight of hand).

  2. Tony says

    As someone who frequently makes sales presentations this is quite interesting. What I am reading is that in order to make the best presentation I can, I should really be trying to do only one thing at a time. So after putting up a new slide I should shut up while we all read or digest it. Then I should continue on with my patter. If I am going to make gestures they should be grand and uncommon, certainly not so grand or uncommon as to be silly, but gestures that would attract attention rather than tend to go un-noticed.

    I need to be doing the opposite of what the magician is doing with his patter and misdirection! My smooth, even and professional flow when presenting may be counter productive. What do you think?

  3. Roger Dooley says

    Tony, I think you are on the right track, though if the audience has to read your slide and digest it you probably have too much information on it.

    I don’t think a smooth and professional demeanor is at all counterproductive. If you have their attention, you don’t need to be doing more to grab it.

    I’m a fan of slides that are mostly images or perhaps incorporate a word or two. The slides can underscore your points and add a graphic, emotional element. They can even include motion and sound. The main thing to avoid is content that people have to pause and read, or that repeats the same things you are verbalizing. Let us know how your next preso goes!


  4. David Clay says


    I love the post and comparison to the magician. I can see a lot of comparisons to how in marketing you have to have a slight of hand to distract a customer to get them to do what you really want them to do.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for stopping by, David. I hope that marketers don’t try to emulate magicians to the point where they are deceiving their customers, or selling illusions!


  5. Joe M. Turner says

    Great article and observations! The underlying nature of magic entertainment is based in creating pattern interrupts and unique, unexpected experiences. Interestingly, it’s because magic works on similar psychological principles as marketing (and messaging in general) that it has direct application to marketing. Beyond being a metaphor for marketing and branding, magic is also a useful communication tool in its own right.

    In my work as a corporate magician and mentalist, I use visual and psychological illusions to engage attention around ideas, messages, companies, and products. From branding roll-outs to product launches to conference keynotes to trade show exhibits… I’ve moved many of the selling secrets in this article from “behind the scenes analogies” to “front and center messaging techniques.” For example, the blog I posted earlier today addresses the use of magic as a communication tool in a brand rollout.

    Thanks again for a clever and insightful article; I’m tweeting this!

    Joe M. Turner
    “Chief Impossibility Officer”

  6. Tony says

    Roger, generally my slides contain a single picture, occasionally though a few bullet points are needed.

    What I was trying to say is that perhaps I need to rethink the general idea of a smooth flow and move to something that is a little more disruptive, more attention getting.


  7. denise lee yohn says

    hi roger — fun post! and great observations! i recently wrote a related post about “the magic of selling” ( which talks about how steve jobs’ magician techniques makes him a great salesman. — denise lee yohn

  8. Bruce Graham says

    Great post 🙂
    As a magician and Instructional Designer I can appreciate these sentiments more than you know, ESPECIALLY the “Big Move Little Move” concept.
    I prefer “redirection” to “misdirection”, but they are in essence the same thing.
    Magic in Your Hands

  9. Berthold says

    In designer’s terms, most of what you’re describing here has to do with contrast.

    Contrast is what enables people to distinguish background and foreground, information and decoration, the important and the fluff.

    One big paradigm I learned from Andy Rutledge (who also recommended your site btw) is to use the least amount of contrast necessary to get your point across, so if something can be done in a small move and contrasted with a big gesture, use that instead of a big move and a huge gesture unless you aim to to build a contrast to something else you have no control over – like the niagara falls. Contrast is a powerful tool, it’s in distance, direction, colour, lines and grids, everything we design is based on contrast.

  10. Fashion Photographers says

    Love the post, just wish i could pull money out of a hat now…

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