Making Magic

Steve Cohen, the "Millionaire's Magician," shares some tips for winning over a well-heeled audience, including why you should never wing it and the importance of having backup plans.

Few tasks can cast dread into the heart of an otherwise self-assured executive like delivering a presentation to a room full of power players. Commanding the attention of an important audience-whether they be investors, clients, or your superiors-demands a level of charisma and confidence that not everyone can easily marshal.

Giving presentations to powerful people is what Steve Cohen (not to be confused with hedge-fund billionaire Stevie Cohen) does for a living. Known as the "Millionaire's Magician" for his refined displays of legerdemain, Cohen performs magic shows each weekend for a high-end crowd inside a private suite at the Waldorf Towers in New York, and also travels around the country to put on private shows for executives and tycoons ranging from Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller to Michael Bloomberg and Jack Welch. After nine years of performing in front of crowds like these, Cohen has learned a thing or two about how to wrap a room full of powerful people around his finger.

"When you strip away sleight-of-hand tricks, magicians are essentially masters of attracting and holding attention and impressing audiences," says Cohen in his book on how to captivate an audience, Win the Crowd.

A pickup artist gives tips on closing the deal.
Cohen says that many of the same tricks of the trade that are essential to executing illusions in front of an intelligent, demanding audience can be used by an executive trying to persuade a room full of skeptical colleagues or clients.

Here are a few of his top recommendations for winning over even the toughest crowd.

Leave No Detail Unplanned
"A good magician makes something difficult look easy," says Cohen.

Parts of Cohen's act may look spontaneous, but in reality he has planned out every minute of his time in front of the crowd to achieve an effortless yet commanding and polished affect. That means anticipating when people will laugh and when they'll have questions, as well as figuring out how to get reticent audience members to participate (for this last situation, Cohen uses what he calls a "layered command"-for example, "stand up and hold this rope"-maintaining that people are much more likely to do what you tell them without protest or hesitation when you give them two commands at the same time, instead of just one).

Even Cohen's most impromptu-sounding comments have been subject to advance practice. When Cohen is preparing to add a new element to his show, he makes a point of first testing out any new jokes or dialogue-known in the business as "patter"-in his everyday life.

"I'll drop in any new phrases in conversation with the mailman, the guy at the coffee shop, my wife-whomever I can find-to make sure they work and to get really comfortable with them before I'm using them in the show," says Cohen.

Aileen Pincus, president of media coaching firm The Pincus Group, agrees that it's important to become comfortable using language on a given topic before using it in a speech or presentation, saying that one of the things that makes an audience uneasy is when presenters memorize and use words and speech they wouldn't ordinarily use in conversation.

She adds that executives should ditch the fantasy that they can (or should) come up with dialogue off the cuff; rather, they should embrace the idea of thinking ahead like Cohen does.

"We tell people to never wing it," says Pincus. "Even 'impromptu' speeches and remarks doesn't have to mean unprepared."

Case The Joint
Once Cohen has the basics of his act down pat, he makes sure to check out any new place he'll be performing at early in order to do what performers call "treading the boards"-figuring out where in the room it's best to stand (or sit), what planned elements of the show will have to change due to the specifics of the room, and whether there are any objects or features of the room he can incorporate into his act. Cohen says that he's gone as far as breaking into rooms before his act in order to do this sort of advance work.

A pickup artist gives tips on closing the deal.
"Usually I'm dealing with very high-end executives or party planners and really don't have a second chance to make a good impression," says Cohen. "I need to make sure all the minutiae are going in the right direction before I even start to show them anything."

Pincus agrees that getting familiar with a presentation venue in advance makes good sense. Not only does it reduce nerves, it also allows a presenter to adapt to any last-minute changes that might be necessary, such as dealing with equipment constraints or adapting to a room that's much larger or smaller than envisioned.

Doug Staneart, the C.E.O. of presentation training firm the Leader's Institute, adds that without these types of on-site adjustments, presentations can end up looking canned and unoriginal.

Always Have Backup Plans
"It's essential to have backup plans-not just one, but several," says Cohen. "The key is to know all the things that could possibly go wrong."

Cohen prepares graceful solutions for all kinds of situations: If he accidentally 'flashes' something to the crowd (like a coin in his hand or a handkerchief up his sleeve), for instance, or a volunteer from the audience forgets which card he or she was asked to remember (true to the tenets of his profession, Cohen won't say exactly what he does in those situations, but stresses that he has plans for any and every contingency).

Staneart agrees with Cohen's advice of thinking through the unexpected-particularly in situations where you might end up fielding questions.

"You need to know way more about your topic than you're actually going to present, so if the unexpected does come up, you're prepared," says Staneart.

Pincus also highlights the importance of being aware of certain common issues, like technology failures or having less time for a presentation than expected, both of which can foil an otherwise well-planned presentation.

"When people are in a stressful situation, any little mishap can throw them off," says Pincus. "But if they've simply thought through having some key messages ready, no matter what happens they'll be able to adapt to a situation."

Adds Cohen: "Leave nothing to chance; the key to a successful performance is approaching it like a total pro."

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