Of all the questions I am asked when applying the Rules of Magic to business presentation skills, “Can you use mindreading techniques to win people over?” is the one that crops up most consistently.
The short answer is ‘yes’, but it’s a very qualified yes because the secret behind most ‘mindreading’ is blatant, and often quite simple, trickery. No one really likes to hear that, so they persist with: “But what about the stuff Derren Brown does?” Again, mostly trickery, with elements of psychology mixed in, but this does lead to where we can have a more constructive conversation on the subject of Cold Reading.
Essentially, Cold Reading is about truly observing – rather than just seeing – everything around you and putting that information to good use. Sherlock Holmes is the best known exponent of this technique and would famously chastise Watson with: “You see, but you do not observe,” before drawing all kinds of conclusions about a person based on the way they dress, the scuff on their shoes, the hint of a scent and a study of their gait.
I recently found myself in the perfect position to point to the benefits of some ultra-simple Cold Reading when I helped a Korean start-up business with their investor pitch. They had a whole new hi-tech take on personal identification for online security and they were pointing to the potential for their product in different parts of the world. They displayed a global map that was divided into percentages, with higher scores featuring in the West than the East. When they finished I confessed I had failed to understand this part – what did the percentages represent?
Then, and only then, did they explain that until quite recently people in Eastern cultures tended to use a stamp impression to identify themselves rather than a signature. Then someone else chipped in: “It’s a bit like the signet rings that British people used for stamping sealing wax on important documents.” “Like this,” I replied, showing my own signet ring bearing my family’s ancient crest and motto.” Just as I had very little knowledge of Eastern practices, my client had never seen the Western equivalent and in my explanation I had to avoid getting too bogged down in the complexities of Royal Charters and the Norman invasion.
What came out of this, however, were at least two very useful little nuggets for future versions of the pitch. First, actively use – and maybe even make a feature of – the cultural differences between stamps and signatures. It may seem peripheral to your ‘big sell’ but it’s all good story material with the potential to interest and intrigue your audience.
Second, do a little ‘Cold Reading’ before you get started, especially in a room full of Brits in the City of London. Scan the room to see who has a signet ring, probably on the pinky finger of their left hand. Then you can get individuals actively involved in your storytelling. It builds a bridge between the two different cultures, together with empathy between yourself and your audience.
Show business people other than magicians will be familiar with this process, without necessarily regarding it as ‘Cold Reading’. “Who’s in tonight?” they will ask the theatre manager, keen to know of any particular coach groups with special interests, regionalities or special interests they can bounce off. As for magicians and their trickery, that inevitably has to remain shrouded in secrecy but, while much of it is surprisingly simple, technology has undoubtedly helped. Indeed, in the early days of the internet many mindreaders made a specialty of picking a supposedly random audience member and telling them intricate details of their schooldays – all plucked supposedly direct form their minds. Those mindreaders continue to this day to curse the demise of Friends Reunited!