In recent weeks the news has been full of stories focusing on spending issues as they relate to conferences and meetings, specifically in the government sector. Articles about lavish spending on the 2010 GSA Western Regions Conference, which included a presentation by a mentalist, continued for weeks. Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pulled an advertisement they had placed seeking a magician and motivational speaker for an upcoming meeting. That decision, as presented in much of the media, happened “in the wake of the GSA scandal.” The story was originally broken by Government Executive Media Group, who contacted me today for comment. (UPDATED – Here’s the link: Magic acts at conferences can add substance, professionals say.)
People who know me and my personal political inclinations know very well that I am no fan or defender of wasteful government spending. In fact, I am strongly in favor of multiple large cuts in federal (and state and local) government spending and applaud the watchdog instinct that leads to questions in stories like these.
Sometimes, though, it is so easy to go for either the joke or the jugular that some relevant details are lost or ignored. Reporters, commentators and their readers may reach hasty conclusions about the value of presenters based on preconceptions about labels used in describing them. Certainly labels like “magician” or “mindreader” are more likely to attract jokes than labels like “football player” or “rock star.” These kinds of situations would probably have never made the news if the people involved were Tim Tebow, Bono, or perhaps some famous magician like Penn Jillette or David Copperfield… even if those people had less relevant content to share than the people who were actually booked or considered.
In the light of recent events, then, I’d like to offer both some cautions and some encouragements for my friends, clients, and readers as they process news stories such as these.
As I indicated above, don’t let preconceived ideas about a single label serve as your entire definition or concept of what a presenter offers to his or her audience. The word “magician” doesn’t mean the same thing to all people; for many, it carries connotations of bunny rabbits, balloon animals, top hats and capes. For others, it sounds like smoke and mirrors and vanishing girls and windblown hair. It has the feel of a children’s party or a Las Vegas show. Those images are obviously effective in creating a perception of wastefulness or irrelevance to a conference or meeting, but they are far removed from the experiences delivered by a variety of speakers and entertainers like me in corporate settings every day.
Remember that just because a presenter falls into one category doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t simultaneously belong in another category. The brand of “mentalist” or “magician” may simply be the garnish on an individual who has real experience and expertise to share. Admittedly, that isn’t true for every performer. Yes, there are some entertainers who, in an attempt to make a buck, contrive ways to add some buzzwords to their show and turn a “show” into a “presentation.” That isn’t true in every case, though. There are people with legitimate education, credible business experience, and hard-earned management battle scars who also have the benefit of being entertaining, talented people with unique ways of presenting their content. Want to talk about waste? It would be a horrible waste to deprive people of the legitimate benefit of these people’s insights because an easy label is used to imply that they are trivial.
What is more wasteful than a conference that everyone attends but nobody remembers? Return on investment is zero if people are too bored to attend to the information being presented. What adds more value: a fully factual presentation presented to an empty room, or an entertaining and factual presentation presented to a room of engaged attendees?
People cannot act on or benefit from information they do not remember, and people do not remember information as well when it is presented in ways that are not engaging. In my presentations on memory improvement, I mention that we forget a lot of information that we encounter simply because it failed to break through the background noise. Magic and mentalism, as I have long contended, are ideal formats for communicating important messages because the experiences are by definition out of the ordinary. Human beings are wired to remember things that are different, things that are unusual, and things that interrupt our normal patterns. Reading minds and defying physics are not normal experiences, and when real information is tied to those experiences, that information is retained far longer than information buried in the middle of a 100-slide PowerPoint deck.
Effective presentations often include an element of fun. Think back to the most boring teachers or professors you ever had. Now think back to the best ones. How quickly we forget.
I’m certainly not suggesting that you go out and book any magician or mentalist who also claims to be a sales trainer, leadership guru, or teambuilding expert. I wrote in my previous article (Credibility Counts) that anyone can claim anything. It is certainly wise stewardship to examine résumés, check references, and consider what individuals really have to offer. What critics may call “gimmicks” are not a substitute for real content; at the same time, they are not to be dismissed out of hand. Having a unique and entertaining presentation is a proven path to increased retention. When wielded by people with legitimate content and relevant experience, tools such as magic, mentalism, and a host of other skills are not wasteful expenditures, but in fact good ways to incent attendance, boost engagement, and increase retention.
Joe M. Turner is a professional speaker and corporate entertainer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a former manager in the change management practice at Accenture and a former Vice President of Associate Development at Bank of America. He has performed at meetings, conferences, and entertainment venues from Hollywood to London. Joe leverages the theatrical impact of magic and mentalism in his keynote presentations as a tool to engage attention and communicate messages on positive response to change, memory improvement, and creating amazing experiences with your brand. Visit him online at www.turnermagic.com and follow him on Twitter @turnermagic.