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, misdirection is the central secret of all magic. The term is used to describe either the effect (the observer's focus on an unimportant object) or the sleight of hand or patter (the magician's speech) that creates it.
Though it is difficult to say who first coined the term "misdirection", an early reference was made by an influential performer and writer, Nevil Maskelyne: "It consists admittedly in misleading the spectator's senses, in order to screen from detection certain details for which secrecy is required." Around the same time, magician, artist and author Harlan Tarbell noted, "Nearly the whole art of sleight of hand depends on this art of misdirection."
There are two basic ways to "misdirect" an audience. One is to encourage 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 audience's perception, where 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 in reality it has no bearing on the effect at all. Dariel Fitzkee notes that "The true skill of the magician is in the skill he exhibits in influencing the spectators mind." Additionally, sometimes a prop such as a "magic wand" is used to aid in misdirection.
In The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians, author T.A. Waters writes that "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."
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.
The audience's attention may be directed in various ways. In the book, The Secret Art of Magic, authors Eric Evans and Nowlin Craver posit the theorem that magic is directly related to warfare, and relies upon the same principles for success. Sun Tzu's Art of War is referenced in showing how deception is essential to any successful campaign. Craver goes on to illustrate, through the 36 strategies, how they form a blueprint for every known method of misdirection. In World War II, British military intelligence employed stage magician Jasper Maskelyne to help devise various forms of misdirection such as ruses, deception, and camouflage.
In his 1948 book, Principles and Deceptions, Arthur Buckley questions the accuracy of the term. Since that time, magicians have debated the use of the term "misdirection", 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. 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."
Jacobus Maria Bemelman, under the stage name "Tommy Wonder", has pointed out that it is much more effective, from the magician's point of view, to concentrate on the positive aim of directing the audience's attention. He writes that "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."
- Our Magic, page 117, second edition copyright 1946
- Harlan Tarbell, The Tarbell Course in Magic Vol. 1
- Henry Hay, The Amateur Magicians Handbook, pg. 2, copyright 1972
- Dariel Fitzkee, Magic by Misdirection, pg. 33, copyright 1975
- Lantiere, Joe (2004). The magician's wand : a history of mystical rods of power (Rev ed.). Oakville, CT: Olde World Magick. ISBN 9780962769559.
- The Encyclopedia of Magic and Magicians, pg. 232, copyright 1988
- The 36 Strategems
- Ganson, Lewis. The Magic of Slydini, Harry Stanly Publishing, London, 1968.
- (copyright 1948, page 27)
- The Books of Wonder Volume I, copyright 1996