7 Marketing Secrets from Houdini & the Greatest Magicians Who Ever Lived

Editor's Note: This article was also featured on CommPRO.biz.

Apple's Steve Jobs, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, best-selling authors Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell or Guy Kawasaki, who are the business gurus that have inspired you? As president of the Maccabee agency for 16 years, I've been motivated by a different sort of advisor – Penn & Teller, David Copperfield and Harry Houdini (pictured below) – magicians, illusionists and wizards.    

This admission is brought on by my obsession with magic and my discovery of a new book, How to Persuade People Who Don't Want to Be Persuaded. Using magic as metaphors for business communication, the authors reveal secrets "from the world's greatest persuaders – carneys, gamblers, hypnotists and even magician" that can be applied to your business life. 

So what can you as a marketer learn from the magicians' world of levitating supermodels and vanishing Bengal tigers?   

Harry Houdini resized 600

1. Focus Narrowly to Achieve Greatness

British magician Derek Dingle, considered the greatest card magician of our time, had a vast repertoire of magic effects. But when Dingle performed for the public, he limited himself to fewer than six tricks. Conjurors acknowledge that Dingle "did those tricks better than any magician in the world." The savviest marketing agencies I know in the Twin Cities – such as SEO specialists Nina Hale, healthcare marketers Interval (Editor's Note: Now known as Revive Health) and experiential experts Innova – strive to become extraordinary in a focused discipline, rather than losing themselves in the wasteland of being a "full-service" agency. Successful branding favors those marketers who identify what their products or companies are not and then focus on what they can do better than anyone in the business world.    

2. The Magic of Persuasion Happens In The MindPenn & Teller

Teller (of the duo Penn & Teller) and others argue that magic happens not on stage but in the spectator's mind. Whether the elephant has vanished or not, if your audience believes the elephant has vanished, that pachyderm is gone. That observation requires marketers to think not about what a customer is seeing you do and hearing you say, but how they process what you do and say in their mind.  If you want to research this further, read Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, which suggests ways that you can hack into another person's brain to "use your mind's own intrinsic properties against you in a form of mental jujitsu."   

3. Reading Clients Like A Magician

Dingle and other magicians I've seen up close are masters of misdirection – drawing your attention away from where they don't want your eyes to turn. But they are also observers of the physical "tells" that reveal your state of mind – noticing if an audience member is bored, baffled or distracted. Similarly, I've attended 100 agency new business presentations and it's clear the #1 secret of winning new clients comes down to those agencies that develop the ability to read decision makers. Fine-tune your ability to understand clients and prospects by picking up former FBI agent Joe Navarro's What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People.    

4. Overcoming Insurmountable Obstacles

Anytime I feel burdened by the challenges of managing a business, I think of Argentinian magician René Lavand. René dazzled audiences on Ed Sullivan and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, along with audiences across Europe. But René's dexterity is made all the more astonishing when you realize that Lavand has only one hand. The story of how Lavand overcame a childhood accident to become one of the foremost magicians in Europe puts my far less daunting challenges in perspective. 

Rene Lavand

5. Touch Your Customer Emotionally

David Copperfield creates iconic illusions that are designed for emotional impact and symbolic power. While other magicians do penetration effects, Copperfield walked through the Great Wall of China. Other magicians make coins disappear, Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty vanish. Copperfield follows the tradition of Houdini, who didn't just escape from any jail cell, but liberated himself from the cell that once held the assassin of President McKinley. Houdini also was sewn inside a beached whale, escaping like Jonah. Too much marketing content – from blog posts to YouTube videos – is sleep-inducing and humorless. From a "Keeping Sexual Intimacy Alive" program with sex expert Dr. Ruth that addressed the emotional issue of erectile dysfunction to a Hazelden program that tackled four generations of addicted family members, our agency strives to guide clients toward an emotional (as well as financial) payoff in marketing campaigns. If a customer's eyes fail to dilate and their heart rate doesn't soar in response to your campaign, we have failed as marketers.    

6. Leverage the Marketing Power of Names

Eugene Burger, who was called "Close Up Magician of the Year" twice by the Magic Castle, teaches the psychology behind close-up magic.  What more valuable skill could you have as a businessperson than the ability to connect in your first seconds of meeting with a CEO or customer? That’s what Burger does as he performs, leveraging eye contact, a memory for names and an understanding of human dynamics. "When I sit down at a table to perform magic for strangers, the very first thing I want to do is find out their names," writes Burger in his book, Mastering The Art of Magic. "People deeply enjoy hearing the sound of their own names…knowing a person's name is power." (If you have difficulty remembering names, check out The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, At School and At Play by Harry Lorayne – who also happens to be one of the most acclaimed card magicians in the world!)    

eugeneburger resized 600


7. Believe In the Impossible

Finally, every day in business I'm buoyed by the optimism of Canadian illusionist Doug Henning, who said: "If we all live with a sense of wonder, our lives will become filled with joy." When our agency wrestles with a marketing conundrum, my mind turns to the naïve but inspiring monologue Henning shared at the finale of his "World of Magic" shows: "Anything the mind can conceive is possible. Nothing is impossible. All you have to do is look within, and you can realize your fondest dreams. I would like to wish each one of you all of life's wonders and a joyful age of enlightenment."     

Doug Henning 1976 resized 600


Image Sources: The Guardian / Inside the Magic / Portal de Magia / Chicago History Museum / Wikipedia

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Brand Strategy

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