🎩 What Magicians can teach us about Internal Communications
A Conversation with Rory Adams of One Ahead
This February, I had the incredible experience of participating in a fellowship with Substack. It brought together writers from around the world into cohorts. I was lucky to be matched with a brilliant international crew — Rory is one of those talented writers. I learned a lot from him, including the possibility of bringing a bit of magic to internal communications.
In This Edition
⭐ The philosophy of “show, don’t tell”
🪄 What All Hands can learn from the principles of magic
🐇 Skills from magic to help internal communications
I write magic for talented humans like Dynamo, Troy, Justin Willman, & Neil Patrick Harris. I’ve traveled the world writing telly magic for shows like Netflix’s Magic For Humans, ITV’s The Next Great Magician, & JSBC’s The Amazing Magicians, and more.
Now, I’m writing about writing magic in a weekly newsletter. I share closely-guarded magic consulting secrets like dual-reality, pre-show, mic-checks and instant-stooging. I break down TV magic shortcuts and reveal what really goes on behind the scenes of your favorite magic shows in One Ahead.
What sparked your interest in magic?
When I was very young, I scaled this creaky ladder into the attic with my Grandad. He fetched out this shoebox of old magic tricks he had back when he was in the British Navy. That was what sparked my interest in magic! I've always been obsessed with what happens behind the scenes in a movie or if I go to a musical, I’m trying to see where props are coming from behind the curtain onto the stage.
My main passion is television. When I left school, I pursued magic television. It’s quite a unique niche. I got really lucky writing for magic television shows around the world. It’s similar to how most comedy shows have comedy writers. Even when you see someone like David Blaine, on his show, he has a team around to help him write the magic!
What are a few projects you are particularly proud of working on?
I worked on two seasons of the Netflix show Magic for Humans with Justin Willman. That was just the time of my life because it combined comedy and magic which was so much fun. There’s nothing more fulfilling than managing to make a comedian to laugh!
I worked with Dynamo, a British magician who is quite famous. He’s well-known for borrowing a phone from the audience and putting it into a glass bottle. That was quite an interesting experience to make the trick happen!
I also really enjoyed getting to work on Groundhog Day the musical by Tim Minchin. I always like working on magic with non-magicians. The rules are completely different. Most people are so excited to get to do something they don’t normally work on which is really fun.
What can internal communications learn from magic?
When I work with magicians, I find myself teaching them to “show, don’t tell.” That applies really well to internal communications. Let’s say that I tell you I've got an empty bottle of water. You might question it. What would be better is if I unscrewed the bottle and tipped out the last few drops of water. Then, you'll tell yourself that it’s empty. If people can reach the conclusion you're trying to get them to reach themselves, it will resonate better with them and they’ll believe it more.
When people think about misdirection in magic, they think of a big distraction to look the other way. But, really you need them to look where you want them to look. If I’m doing a slight trick with my hands, I don’t want you to look at my hands so I’ll look at you. Then, you’ll instinctively look back at me. I see some interesting parallels there with how you get people to focus and pay attention. Of course, at work, there’s not a trick involved.
There’s also this great quote from Penn and Teller that can really be applied to your industry: “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” It’s about putting in the hard work. There are so many magicians who do card tricks and the reality is that they’ve memorized the order of a deck of cards. But, no one would think that is something someone would do! It’s about working really hard at your craft to be so great that you’re natural at it.
What can All Hands learn from the principles of magic?
Normally, I have a lot more at my disposal with lighting and music with live shows. Since we’re not quite returning all to the office for the live event, there are some basic principles to set the stage. If you're trying to capture attention, your gut tells you to go big. Actually, the opposite is better — go small with a simple trick, and lowering your voice tends to be better. Think about applying these principles with presentations.
We also have a saying in magic that “the show starts before the show starts.” It doesn’t mean rehearsing, which is important, it means that when people are entering, there’s activity going on that they might not be aware of to make the show an experience. There are posts on social media, interactions happening or you might get an email telling you to bring something!
Finally, I’ve learned from one of the best — Paul Kieve who leads the illusions for Matilda the Musical and did the magic in the Harry Potter films. He always says “make it work before you make it beautiful.” I repeat that as a reminder 24/7. So, if you’re making something levitate, you might start with a neon rope to make it work. Then, eventually, you’ll do it with invisible thread and light it perfectly. It’s useful to think about getting the basics right first before getting flashy.
How has magic adapted during the pandemic?
Magic is the best art form to watch over Zoom. It has adapted really well. You can still get interaction with the audience and get everyone involved! Dan White who was doing high-end shows in New York City before now sells out on his online live events. There’s a special element to the evening where you are mailed a box that arrives before the show with specific items inside like a candle, popcorn, whiskey and a deck of cards.
A lot of magicians are also performing at corporate virtual events as companies have been trying to keep their teams happy at home! A whole new market has opened up during these times. Magic is referred to as the second oldest profession. If you look at history and paintings from thousands of years ago, you can see art of magicians performing “cups and balls,” which still happens today. Magic has this incredible ability to adapt. It’s quite inspiring.
What skills from magic could help professionals in internal communications?
There’s definitely human psychology in terms of understanding how people think and leading them in a certain direction. Magicians also create an illusion of choice. I think that's really interesting because you can have such influence as a communicator (of course, steering people in the right direction).
Making the rehearsed feel unrehearsed is also so important! I love talking to people who have seen a magic show and they feel they’ve seen something no one else has seen! But, actually, if you go back the next night, it is the same. Magicians like Derren Brown make it feel so in the moment when you see him performing. There’s a lot you can apply to speeches, presentations and employee events.
There’s also this spirit of mentorship that exists within magic. To become a magician, someone has to teach you a secret at some point so there’s this quite inspiring atmosphere of having a mentor and taking people under your wing. It’s very secretive from the outside, but once you’re in it, there’s something really quite nice about it. Hopefully, internal communications might feel similar.
If someone wants to learn magic, where should they start?
Thank you for reading. Comment below with what you learned or a question you might have for Rory.
☎️ Every edition of The Switchboard is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. This post is based on a live interview conversation and edited for publication. Learn more about why I write.