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Misdirection is a form of deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another.
Managing the audience's attention is the aim of all Theater, it is the foremost requirement of Theatrical Magic. Whether the Magic is of a "pocket trick" variety, or, a large stage production in Las Vegas, misdirection is the central secret of all Magic.
Speaking of Misdirection, Nevil Maskelyne wrote, "It consists admittedly in misleading the spectator's senses, in order to screen from detection certain details for which secrecy is required." (Our Magic, page 117, second edition copyright 1946)
"Nearly the whole art of sleight of hand depends on this art of misdirection." (Harlan Tarbell, The Tarbell Course in Magic Vol. 1)
"The central secret of conjuring...is a manipulation of interest." (Henry Hay, The Amateur Magicians Handbook, pg. 2, copyright 1972).
The term is used to describe either the effect (the victim's focus on an unimportant object) or the sleight of hand or patter (the magician's speech) that creates it.
There are two basic ways to "misdirect" your audience; one is time-sensitive, the other isn't.
The time-sensitive approach encourages the audience to look away for a fleeting moment, so that the sleight or move may be accomplished undetected.
The other approach has much to do with re-framing the audiences perception, and perhaps very little to do with the senses. The minds of the audience members are distracted into thinking that an extraneous factor has much to do with the accomplishment of the feat, whereas it really doesn't have any bearing on the effect at all. "The true skill of the magician is in the skill he exhibits in influencing the spectators mind." (Dariel Fitzkee, Magic by Misdirection, pg. 33, copyright 1975).
"Misdirection is the cornerstone of nearly all successful magic; without it, even the most skilled Sleight of Hand or mechanical device is unlikely to create an illusion of real magic." (T.A. Waters, The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians, pg. 232, copyright 1988).
Misdirection takes advantage of the limits of the human mind in order to give the wrong picture and memory. The mind of a typical audience member can only concentrate on one thing at a time. The magician uses this to manipulate the audience's ideas, or, perceptions of sensory input, leading them to draw false conclusions.
Misdirection in magic may be as simple as a magician rolling up his sleeves and saying "nothing up my sleeve" and then producing an object that could never have been "up his sleeve". The audience instinctively scrutinizes the magician's arms, but ignores the actual location where the object-to-be-magically-produced is hidden.
Attention can be controlled in various ways. A magician will first grab attention with a coin, or another small and shiny object A shiny object captures more attention and seems less likely to disappear or to be manipulated. Then attention is directed away from the object (hence, "misdirection") through a combination of comedy, sleight of hand or an unimportant object of focus, thus providing just enough time for the magician to do whatever he or she wishes to do with the original object.
Controversy -- In his book Principles and Deceptions (copyright 1948, page 27) Arthur Buckley questioned the accuracy of the term. Since that time, magicians have debated the use of the term "misdirection", thereby creating a great deal of discussion about what it is, and how it works.
Buckley drew the distinction between misdirection and "direction". One being a negative term, and the other a positive one. Yet ultimately, he equates the two as the same thing-- "If a performer by some means has directed the thoughts of his audience to the conclusion that he has done something which he has not done, he has wrongly directed them into this belief, hence, misdirection."
It was left to a Jacobus Maria Bemelman, under the stage name "Tommy Wonder" (writing in his book The Books of Wonder Volume I, copyright 1996), to point out that it is much more effective, from the magicians point of view, to concentrate on the positive aim of directing the audiences attention. On page 11 he writes, "Misdirection implies 'wrong' direction. It suggests that attention is directed away from something. By constantly using this term, it eventually becomes so ingrained in our minds that we might start to perceive misdirection as directing attention away from rather than toward something."
One of the most important things to remember when thinking about misdirection and magic is this: a larger movement conceals a smaller movement.
Among the very few magicians who have researched and evolved misdirection techniques are John Ramsay, Tommy Wonder, Derren Brown, Juan Tamariz, Tom Stone, Tony Slydini and Dai Vernon.
See also 
- Learn Misdirection
- Misdirection Resource Center
- Misdirection methods
- Glossary about stage and platform mediums
- Official Website of "Misdirection" The Movie