On magic and social cues

Did you know there’s an intelligence out there in the form of understanding your demographics?

January 29, 2019 11:01 am | Updated 11:01 am IST

An old friend of mine, and for the last few months, a colleague too, is a magician. While he really is great at his job, I am not using the word magician here as a metaphor. He actually is a magician or a mind reader as he prefers to be called, given he leans towards mentalist tricks rather than those of sleight-of-hand, and has performed far and wide, both in India and abroad.

I had the privilege of watching him perform a small set for an informal gathering of colleagues last week, and it was brilliant to watch him string the entire audience along and make them believe in the fantastical story that he was performing. It struck me then that this is the exact skill that all entrepreneurs need. Not the bag of tricks, but the ability to convince investors, and convince their customers even more crucially, of the story that they are weaving, of the product or service that they are offering.

Magic is all about social cues. Most of the tricks work because under the circumstances (the lighting, the magician’s costumes, the anticipation, everything) that the show is being performed, the audience, the volunteers that the performer may involve in their tricks, all of them are primed to obey whatever the magician tells them. “Pick a card,” they pick a card. “Pick ten cards,” and they pick ten cards. The magician looks to the right, and so does everyone. The magician then looks up, and the audience follows. This adherence to social cues is what a lot of magic shows hinge on.

Understanding this can be very useful to any entrepreneur. They can start thinking not just about the content of their pitch deck when they are talking to potential investors but also where and when to do so, and how that can play to their advantage. You may not want to pick a café that the investor is very familiar with, but instead, pick a place where they are in some sense an outsider. Or a place where they can see your business idea in action. Where you can weave the setting into your pitch. If you are a marketplace for fashion, you may want to pitch while walking around a boutique. If you are solving a problem of commute, do it in an autorickshaw may be. As someone closer to the ground in the business you are in, you have a very good opportunity to construct the right cues for the investor. And every entrepreneur should try and do that.

This understanding of social cues will also help them in trying to replicate as much of it as possible as part of their offering’s user experience as well. It, therefore, shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the magician colleague I talked about is in charge of user experience in my workplace.

There is one interesting catch though about entrepreneurs and magic shows. Given magic depends so much on social cues, and a large chunk of entrepreneurs are those who have been able to look beyond social cues, or completely ignore them, they probably make for a really horrible audience for magicians.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space

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