“To change is to live, to live is to change, and not to change is to die.” — Tennessee Williams
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“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
Of course, at the time, I hadn’t heard these words by Carl Jung. Even still, I could feel them somehow—and that’s how it all got started.
I’ve never been the same since (and neither has my audience).
It used to be that my goal as a magician was to entertain people by creating moments of temporary wonder and delight—but by 2008, life circumstances led to the discovery that I wanted something more than entertaining distractions. I wanted lasting transformations that encouraged myself and my audience to think and behave differently as a result of the “meeting”—to help us truly come alive. As Tennessee Williams reminds us: “To change is to live, to live is to change, and not to change is to die.”
With this intention set, the next time I met with an audience the resulting reaction had dramatically changed. Instead of mere laughter and applause, I also got words like this from people who participated in the experience:
“Your talent goes way beyond your magic. Your true talent is inspiring people and uplifting their spirits. I have recently woken up in a situation that was very emotionally unhealthy and removed myself from it—but I have secretly been questioning it. After seeing your show tonight, I now know I have made the right decision by following my heart. It’s people like you who really help people to see the light through the dark.”
Learning Experience Design
This early success revealed a limited capacity—because to truly encourage others to think and behave differently also requires the ability to empower them with relevant knowledge and skills. After all, people only change when they hurt enough that they have to change, learn enough that they know how to want to change, and receive enough that they are able to change.
To enhance this capacity to help people change in positive and constructive ways, I went to Purdue University to study learning experience design—the science of designing learning experiences that help people not just learn but to also transfer their new knowledge and skills outside of the theater, outside of the conference room, and outside of the classroom.
Over the years I’ve experimented with various formulas for designing learning experiences and the results have been not only empowering but also far more encouraging than anything I could have imagined.
What follows is an outline of five practical ideas collected over a decade of studying and applying learning experience design in theaters, conference rooms, and classrooms across the United States.
If you are an entertainer who is looking to not just engage but to also empower and encourage your audience, then what follows will provide a useful guideline to help you get started. And if you are already a speaker or facilitator, then what follows can serve as a mirror to highlight your own practice as well as what you might wish to add to your toolbox:
1. What’s the desired result?
In his “At the Table” lecture, Kostya Kimlat suggests starting with the desired effect you want your audience to perceive, and then working backwards to find a solution to create that desired effect. We can use this same idea by identifying the desired change we wish for our audience—become crystal clear about this desired result—then identify the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they will need to behave in this new way.
Norberto Jansenson does this well in his Tedx Talk, where he shared how he realized he needed to make connections with his audience to help them experience real magic:
“My magic lacked magic. I had tasted magic in my daily life—in a kiss, in a sunset, in an embrace—but I couldn’t create that magical tingly feeling in my audiences.”
This feeling of lack helped Norberto identify the result he wanted for his audience and he used this clarity to make changes to his presentation to cultivate that feeling. When you watch his Tedx Talk, you’ll see that just 12 minutes into the presentation his audience has been moved to tears—experiencing that “magical tingly feeling.”
2. Pose questions
Posing questions is an effective way to influence your audience to begin thinking about where they are, where they’re headed, and where they could be if they make a change. These questions can be either explicit or implicit.
Explicit question may include:
Implicit questions are the result of making statements that inspire self-reflection, inviting the audience to discover their own insights. Magical Bones does this well in a segment on Britain’s Got Talent:
“When I create a magic trick, I want to challenge myself. I have a genuine fear of small spaces, so I wanted to create a routine that would challenge that fear using magic to overcome it…The world can seem like a scary place, but if you free your mind, the rest will follow.”
The implicit questions the audience is invited to reflect on are “What am I afraid of? And how might I free my mind to overcome it?”
3. Know your audience
To create a unique experience tailored for your audience, it’s important to know who they are and what their challenges, goals, and obstacles are. A good way to do this is to interview the person who booked you to gain some insights, and an even better way is to send everyone a survey with a few key questions to answer. The insights gained will help you to create a unique experience for the people you serve.
Derek Delgaudio does this elegantly in his show In & of Itself, where he poses a one-question survey to everyone before they enter the theater: “Who are you?” And then he uses this information throughout the remainder of the show to tailor a unique and meaningful experience for that specific audience.
4. Tell stories
The author Nick Usborne suggests that “if you want people to remember something, tell them a story.” This is useful advice, because people are wired to interpret the world through story, so using at least one story to illustrate your main point is a crucial addition to your presentation.
David Copperfield does this beautifully with his “Snow” illusion, sharing how after he experienced snow for the first time, he would throw confetti to create the illusion of snow—even long after winter was over:
“It was my way of keeping that magic alive all year long. Even today I realize how important it is to keep that sense of wonder, that childlike hope—knowing if you believe and you want it enough, nothing's impossible.”
By weaving his message within a poignant story, David invited his audience to see themselves within the story, creating a lasting feeling of wonder and “childlike hope” they could carry with them even long after the “meeting of two personalities” was over.
5. Use relevant visuals
Visuals create perceptual interest for your audience—novelties in the environment that call attention to what is happening while also activating a natural sense of curiosity. If these novelties are relevant and meaningful, then they can also generate sustained interest and desire to learn more.
Dustin Tavella does this well in a segment on America’s Got Talent All-Stars:
“There is a magic that is far more powerful than anything these hands could ever do. Our words can literally change the course of someone's entire future.”
Dustin then guides Terry Crews to think of encouraging words to share with Simon Cowell, and when the words magically materialize on a piece of paper Simon is holding, the experience not only activates a sense of wonder, it also encourages the audience to consider how they can likewise use their words to build others up.
After delivering one of my Hashtag Positivity workshops at the Tennessee Williams Theater for the faculty and staff of the College of the Florida Keys, Naomi Walsh, Assistant to the Vice President, had this to say about the experience:
“In my three-decade career in education, I’ve had my share of professional development. This was shockingly different. The method of instruction was the most valuable.”
Encouraging others is a call to action to think and behave differently as a result of the meeting of two personalities—a process that starts with engagement (generating attention, interest, and desire), and empowerment (providing relevant knowledge and skills) to help the people we serve move from where they are to where they most hope to be. For as Tennessee Williams suggests, that is how we truly live.
If you are just beginning the process of becoming a speaker or facilitator, my hope is you found something of value here to get you started. And if you are already a seasoned pro, then it is my hope you have found something here that affirms your current practice while perhaps also challenging you with a new perspective.
Wherever you are on your journey, may your next audience have a shockingly different experience as a result of the “meeting of two personalities.”
How will you encourage your audience to think and behave different in positive and constructive ways?
Jonas Cain, M.Ed. is a storyteller, magician, musician, and facilitator of fascination. Through his company, Hashtag Positivity, he assists individuals, teams, and communities in “Being Well By Living Well” to experience abiding joy. Connect with Jonas today to discuss your challenges, goals, and obstacles: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Tedx Talks. (2014, October 27). Buscando la magia perdida | Norberto Jansenson | TEDxRiodelaPlata. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/k1h8TeRemkc
 Britain’s Got Talent. (2022, December 18). Magical Bones amazes the crowd with his card tricks | BGT: The Ultimate Magician. YouTube. https://youtu.be/0O7RcpskjSQ
 Frank Oz. (2021). In and of itself. [Movie]. Hulu. https://youtu.be/OR4NNuNE3Yg
 TheDavidCopperfield1. (2010, December 1). David Copperfield - Snow. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/JsUVFC8ozUE
 Magician's Got Talent. (2023, January 17). America's Got Talent WINNER Returns with an INSPIRATIONAL Audition! [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/7hW1Dju45oA
Jonas Cain, M.Ed. is a storyteller, magician, musician, and facilitator of fascination on a mission to help you experience abiding joy.