Holding The Spectator’s Attention

The scenario is simple: you’re in the middle of performing a trick and something distracts the spectator. They look away, or start talking to someone else. Seconds, or even a minute or two later, they’re back with you, if you’re lucky. Or, perhaps that makes you unlucky?

I’ve encountered this issue several times and I was never prepared for recovery in any of them. While I do think that a few of the times I successfully managed to control the situation, others, in hindsight, I could’ve done much more. Given that I’m a hobby magician who performs semi-rarely and not a professional worker, my input here could be vastly different than what you might encounter on the streets or doing walk around. However, I wanted to share my thoughts anyways.

To be clear, what I'm talking about here is something interrupting the trick, not a spectator that has a short attention span. While they are similar outcomes, they are different topics with, in some cases, different responses.

Consider the Audience

From what I've noticed, there are various factors that are at play:

  • the type of trick you’re performing
  • at what point in the trick the spectator’s attention is pulled away
  • the environment you’re performing in
  • the age of the spectator(s)

There may be others too, and the above list is in no particular order.

My common performing environments, not including just sitting on the couch and showing my wife a card trick:

  • one, or both, of my kids asking me to show them a trick (or me asking to show them one)
  • at a friendly gathering (e.g., a party with friends) where everyone’s my age or older, and they 99% of the time ask me to show something
  • at work, or a work event, and someone asks to see a trick

That’s really about it — though this list is in frequency order, the latter being the least likely to occur in my case.

Also, I don't consider any of this relevant to stage magic, only close-up. If you want my thoughts on that, send me a message!

How to Recover

The majority of tricks I do are card tricks. Most, though that's probably less accurate right now, but most of them are considered impromptu. I have plenty that require a stack, and some that require other setups, deck switches, or even gimmicks. While I can do a few non-card-tricks, I haven't performed them for anyone yet. So, all of the ideas below are purely from my card-filled brain and may not (or may!) apply to other types of magic tricks.

When Was the Interruption?

The "when" is really important, because in some cases you can just reset whereas others, well, the moment's lost.

In a normal card trick, for example, if the spectator's attention was taken away right after they selected a card but before anything else happened, just restart the trick. This does assume that the selection of a card can be simply redone. If there's a stack or other type of setup or gimmick, you may need to move to another trick, or if the interruption is long enough you might be able to reset the deck and repeat.

If the interruption was right before a magic moment, especially the big magic moment, well, sorry to break it to you but the moment is lost. You can try to recap everything that happened so far, like we already overdo in most tricks -- "now remember, you selected a card, then you shuffled the deck, and I've never touched them until now". This lets you continue with your performance for sure, but the buildup, the anticipation, it's gone. From experience I've done that exact thing I just said that you can try, and I did it during a trick that every single audience I've performed it for lost their minds on. Except the one that was interrupted. I think the best reaction, from a group of about 10, was "oh wow, that was pretty cool." I should have just moved on to another trick and attempted to repeat this one later in the set (if at all).

How Long was the Interruption?

This one's very trick-specific in my opinion. Since I mostly do card tricks, and I'm familiar with all of the moments within each trick I perform, I can tell whether an interruption at any given point can be tolerated or not. If it can, the next thing is considering how long of an interruption can it withstand?

In most cases, a few seconds at max. And that's with the assumption that the spectator remained in their spot but just turned their head away. If they left their spot and you don't have an audience of loyal deck-watchers, consider the trick over and reset, or move on to another trick.

I recently ignored the very same advice I just mentioned, and it was super anticlimactic. I was performing a trick I created (though, there's likely to be several others just like it), and in the trick the spectator has to sign the face of their selection and you draw a picture on the back of your selection. The interruption was in between those two things. There was no opportunity to reset, but rather than do another trick, I recapped what had happened so far and continued. The reaction to the final magic moment was a smile and, well, that's about it.

Better Audience Management

Whenever I think of this topic I get a nagging thought in my head that’s saying “if you had better audience management skills, this wouldn’t be an issue.” And perhaps, for a professional walk around performer, this is true. But in my case, I don’t think it is.

I do a lot of public speaking. Typically in the form of presentations at work or conferences, but also as a teacher, Cub Scout leader, etc. Holding an audience’s attention is something I’ve practiced for over 2 decades. There’s always the possibility of an unexpected interruption that’s outside of your control, but if you're engaging and entertaining the audience, it should be much easier.

I’m confident that the audience’s age is a huge factor too. I don’t perform for children other than my own, but I read the At The Kid’s Table column in Genii and this issue exists by default nature with them. 75% of the time, yeah, my kids are off in their own world halfway through my trick. Would that be the case if it was a different kid? Probably not. But a group of them? Maybe.

I want to bring back that conflicting argument though, the idea that having better audience management skills might actually help. If the trick is suitable for the current audience age and also designed to have them participate more than just watch, whether it's physical participation or even just speaking, and if you spent time upfront to establish a "connection" with them, I do think it's more likely to hold their attention even when potential interruptions are around. I have had the case when someone comes up to the person I'm showing a trick to and the spectator just waved them away without ever moving their eyes from the cards -- that was a great feeling for me!

However, there's always the possibility of an unexpected interruption.

How to Restart or Move On?

If the spectator's attention was pulled away so much that you're still standing there with a deck of cards in your hands after a few minutes, I think it's safe to say that the performance is over and you should find something else to do.

If, however, it was a few seconds -- or up to a minute, give or take -- but the trick was essentially ruined because the suspense build-up required their attention the whole way through, it's going to be better to restart the trick, or to move on to another one. Don't continue the trick from the point of the interruption unless you're certain that the spectator is still fully invested in it from where it left off!

I've had success restarting tricks just by saying you're going to have them select a different card. Boom, restarted. I don't even tell them that we're restarting the same trick, I just say something like "You know what, let's try something", and then move back into having them select a card. If the delay was a little longer, sure, it's perfectly fine to say "Well that was fun, let's try that again real quick", or whatever works for you.

Does your trick have a robust or complicated card selection process? If so, don't restart it. Also, consider making an easier card selection process.

In the case that magic moments already occurred during the interrupted-trick's performance, don't restart it. Just move on.

Moving on to another trick is very similar to restarting the current one. If it's another card trick, just say you're going to try a different trick, or even keep with the "You know what, let's try something" line. I've done both and, since the spectator wasn't invested in the original trick too much yet, they moved on right with me.

I have thought about, what if the next trick isn't a card trick? How would I handle that? Well, mentally, I think I would keep the same idea as above and say something like "Let's actually try something without cards real quick," and put the deck down -- or even back in the box -- and do the next thing. The problem with this is if the spectator already picked a card, they may be expecting you to come back to it sometime later in your performance. You might be able to turn this into another trick, before doing the trick you originally planned.

Let's say that no magic moments occurred in the trick yet and you have the selection under control. When you're going to move on to another trick, rather than continuing your current one, control the card to the top of the deck and put it back in the box. Later, before pulling the deck out of the box, ask the spectator if they remember the card they selected. If not, tell them that that's perfectly fine and then you can enjoy the auto-reset. If they do remember it, have then say the card out loud and boom, you're setup for an ambitious card routine. "Oh wow, the seven of clubs?! That's going to make things difficult for me because no matter how hard I try, that very same card always seems to come back to the top of the deck. What? You don't believe me?! Look for yourself!"


There likely exists resources already written about this topic. Even though the books are within arms reach from me right now, I would expect one of the Card College books to likely mention it, or maybe even one of the books about general magic. Or, maybe not? Not sure. I made the executive decision to not research before writing about this one so that I could share my unbiased thoughts, directly from my experience. Limited experience, but still.

There aren't a ton of interruptions that I've encountered while performing, and most of the time I feel like I have the audience very interested and engaged. However, it has happened more than once, and each time it's been fairly memorable from my side of the deck. Having outs, or at least a mental preparation for how to handle them, I think that's a pretty important thing.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas that you can use. If so, or if you have other suggestions as well, let me know and we can chat!

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