Karate Kid and Stage Magic (Frames and Mechanics)

I caught an oldie but a goodie on tv this weekend.  The Karate Kid was playing.  I know, it’s a story that’s been told over and over again (after all, there are only really 7 stories anyway), but this 1980’s version of Rocky from my teen years has a nostalgic quality for me, not the least of which revolves around Elisabeth Shue, but I'll stop there before I get into trouble.... 

But sitting through the movie reminded of something super important.  The Karate Kid is ridiculous.

How can I say that?  Easy.  Try it out yourself.

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Do this.  Spend 3 days waxing on and waxing off, brushing up and brushing down.  Be sure to do this for 10-12 hours, each of those 3 days.  Then, get someone to explain how that specific stroke is for blocking, punching, etc.  Now, spend another week or so going through those movements while standing on a tree stump.  And finally, get in the ring with black belts who have trained for years / decades in your favorite martial art and fight.  Just give it a go.

After your brief hospital stay, come back to me and let’s talk. 

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See, the frustrating thing about that movie, despite my nostalgic fondness for Mr. Miyagi and my 16 year old, rekindled feelings about the best girlfriend from any movie, ever... is the assumption that practice is all that matters.  How do we see this play out?  In education the easiest way to see it is the worksheet.  Practice that algebra equation 100 times and the assumption is that you’ll have mastered it. Identify the verb over and over again and you’ll be able to write grammatically correct sentences.  Or from my home discipline, identify the 80-90 things that go into an effective speech and you’ll be able to give one.  I don’t think I need to belabor the point that you all know.  This kind of practice must be linked to dozens if not hundreds of other instances of practice as well as time spent affirming or critiquing that practice, and even then a lot of people won’t be able to use it.  Why?  Because they won’t understand how it’s used in a real way.  They’ll (possibly) remember the mechanics, but they won’t see how those fit into the answer regarding a question being asked or how and when to implement those mechanics at the right time or right place.  They need to know the frame.  

But it’s not only about the frame.  It can't be only the overarching concept either.  For Christmas I got a great gift from my in-laws – a modern “how to” magic kit.  I’ve loved magic from the time I was a kid, dabbling here and there with the lowest hanging fruit of that world, like light up fingers and card tricks that are more about math than about magic.  But I love watching, I love being tricked, and I love trying to figure out how I was tricked. 

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So, I have enjoyed watching this video series a lot.  It’s got street magicians – guys who are tattooed like an LA bridge is graffitied – who have been fooling people for a long time.  They can roll coins in their fingers, flick cards in the air and catch them behind their backs, and they’ve practiced moving their hands in ways that promote distraction for ten years or more.  But I have their secrets!  I know how the tricks work.  I’ve given a few of them a go and I can do them.  I understand the frame!

But I have an important question for you.  Which of us would you rather see perform magic?  The guys on the video or me?  After all I know how it works.  I could explain it if I had to.  Who would you spend $100 to watch at a 90 minute magic show in your local theater?  Go on, my feelings won't be hurt.  Say it.  You and I both know that my show would be a train wreck compared to theirs.  Why?  Because the frame alone isn’t enough.  The mechanics matter. 

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And so is the plight of the teacher, trainer, preacher, sales engineer, marketer, or anyone else trying get someone to understand.  If you want someone to get it…really get it, they need to know the frame (why) and the mechanics (how).  They need to practice the mechanics in as realistic a situation as possible so that the how is married to the why, even allowing other frames and other mechanics to cross-pollinate.  (After all, those magicians aren’t only card mechanics.  They’re also master storytellers and in some cases stand-up comedians.  They use audience analysis to determine better hooks while trying to utilize other talents like history, science, or math to bolster their craft.)

So, before you create that presentation, setup that curriculum, or prepare your lecture, ask yourself if you’re staying at 30,000 feet, or if you’re stuck in the weeds.  You likely need to move between both.  Will your audience be able to move back and forth between why a mechanic should be chosen and how to implement that mechanic?  After all, nobody wants to be their organization’s 7 year old magician nor the anti-Karate Kid, right?  (Oh, and ensuring a healthy mix of frame and mechanic also helps with boredom.  But that’s another post.)

Good luck and good learning.