Knowing Your Audience

“Is THIS your card!!?” The young magician asked the reluctant volunteer that he had coaxed out of the small crowd that surrounded him. My wife and I were visiting the Asbury Park Boardwalk on our visit to New Jersey. It was a beautiful day and as we strolled along people watching, we came across a street performer/magician surrounded by a small crowd of people. I love magic acts (even bad ones like this) so I eagerly stepped up to the “magic rope” that he had laid on the ground and watched as he a rather awkwardly tried to get the crowd on his side. I was having a great time and as he would joke with everyone and stumble loudly to a tricks conclusion, I was supportive by politely clapping and cheering… a bit. Periodically he would spot other people watching from a safe distance and would yell at them to come closer to his rope and his woefully empty tip bucket. Soon he spotted my wife, who hates being the focus of attention. “If you’re going to watch just walk right up here!” Most people will dutifully follow these instructions, for fear of embarrassing the performer or themselves. But not Lori. “No thanks!” She said politely. “It’s easy, just use your feet!” The magician taunted sarcastically. I smiled and thought, Good luck Pal! “Yeah, I know what feet are for!” Lori said and then turned and walked way. The magician had misread his first audience member.

Now, one of the first things that a speaker, entertainer, the chairperson of a board, or a mayor, in my case, figures out is that you need to get to know your audience. Information like their mood, their sense of humor or lack thereof, what their interested in or if they’d rather be somewhere else. Which brings me back to our young magician friend.

As he felt the audience slipping away, he became more aggressive and more than a little obnoxious, grabbing young ladies by the arm and pulling them forward, making people’s money he had “borrowed” disappear and then not giving it back. One young man who obviously couldn’t afford to lose ten dollars was trapped into hanging around just to see if he could get his money back at the end of the show. He was definitely losing me because I instinctively stopped clapping and crossed my arms tight against my chest… the universal sign for “Please don’t mess with me.” Not exactly the kind of body language you want to see as a performer. Unfortunately for him, his attention was drawn to me anyway. “And for my next trick…” he said loudly, wadding up a small blanket, looking straight at me standing there in my obviously unamused state. “Creepy Guy!” he yelled. “Catch this!” And he threw the neatly folded blanket straight at me. In the second that it took the blanket to fly through the air to me, I went from fairly supportive audience member to an unamused critic. My eyes didn’t leave him and I didn’t move an inch as the blanket bounced off my still folded arms like Superman. There was a long silence as I stood there glaring at the ex-magician. He then slowly walked over to pick up the blanket, cleared his throat and tried to regroup, but before he could talk I loudly interrupted. With mock surprise I pointed at my chest. “Oh! I’m sorry… were you talking to me?” We were in New Jersey, so I thought this was the appropriate response. My wife, had seen this look on my face before so she began to move towards the front, feeling that it may be time for us to go. I stepped over the magic rope on the ground and walked towards him talking loudly as I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket. “You know kid, when I came up here, I was on your side and I really wanted you to succeed. But then you started being rude and obnoxious to all these good people and to cap it off, you insulted me, the one audience member that was willing to applaud and support you.” But despite all that, I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to show you a magic trick.” I held up the bill in front of his face, then turned and held it up for the crowd to see. “First, I’m going to put this five dollar bill into your little bucket…” Slowly I lowered the bill into the bucket, then did my best magician nothing up the sleeves move. “And now, I’m going to disappear.” And then I turned and walked away, arm in arm with Lori. The over confident mouthy magician and the small crowd totally silent behind me.

Magician or politician, you better know your audience… or you better know actual magic.