I’ve been known to be a stickler about slides.  Ask anyone I work with, they’ll agree (too quickly).

For a few years when I was a kid, I got interested in magic.  I’d walk up the flight of stairs to Tannen’s Magic Shop in New York City – always dark in there – and be wowed by the guys behind the counter.  I’d go home with a few new tricks to practice and a handful of simple props to master.

I never had the discipline to get good at it, but I stuck with it long enough to learn that you could have a giant red plastic thumb on your hand that a person two feet away from you wouldn’t notice; that getting someone to pick the card you want them to take really isn’t that hard; and that what you say, the eye contact you make, and how you engage with your audience are more important than what you physically do with the cards or the props.

Many years later, I’ve come to believe that the best presentations are like magic.  They engage, they captivate, they engross.  Included in that is just a bit of illusion: attention to detail, the occasional moment of, “Hey, how did she do that?”, and never letting them see the man behind the curtain.

Of course the slides shouldn’t be the “wow,” you should.

But anything that pulls people away,  anything that makes it harder for people to understand the story you’re telling or the points you want them to walk away with, breaks the spell.  That’s why we sweat the small stuff, in our slides, in our words, in the stories we tell.

Without magic, you’re just standing up there presenting, just like everyone else.

You can deliver magic

Think about the difference between “good enough” and “magical.”

It was the difference, five years ago, between the iPod and the Microsoft Zune (or, for now at least, the iPad and everything).

It’s the difference between a Tiffany’s ring in its eggshell-blue box, and the identical ring you can get 10 blocks away in New York City’s diamond district for half the price.

It’s Zappos giving you free, next-day shipping the first time you order.

Or, back in the day, when your FedEx arrived the next morning, every time, no matter what.

“Magical” isn’t a little better than “good enough”, magical crushes the competition.

Of course, making the entire Apple experience magical is a big deal: they need to deliver, to everyone, the whole package: hardware, software, design, the Apple store, Mac Geniuses, Steve Job keynotes, even those snappy new cases on the iPad 2.

The good news is, you probably don’t need to do a fraction of this to deliver magic.  If you’re not Apple, I’m guessing that most of your success depends on a handful of customers (less than 20, I’m guessing…and even if it doesn’t just depend on such a small number, you can start small).  Curiously, delivering a magical experience to 20 people isn’t actually that hard.  Yes, you have to amaze, surprise, care for, and delight these folks, but there are only 20 of them, and I’m sure if you decide to do this you can do it right away – much more quickly and easily than you expected.

What would it take, really, to deliver magic to just the tippity-top of your top customers?  (not much).

So what’s stopping you?

Blue Hill – if restaurants were nonprofits

The other night I got to eat dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, easily one of the best restaurants around.  Chef Dan Barber has radically shortened the time and distance food takes to get from the farm to the table, and the tastes that result are simply exquisite.

But more interesting than the tastes, to me, was the meal – and that’s something completely different from the food.  The meal was the experience, the meal was a story about what food could be.

Just one example:  near the end of dinner, to kick off desert, our server came to the table with a full honeycomb, covered with honey, that she placed on the table.  It’s kind of a big, messy, natural thing – honeycomb within a wood frame.  She explained that Blue Hill started harvesting its own honey last year; they started with six hives and are up to twelve.  This was the last of the late fall honey, she said, and it is richer and deeper than the early spring honey.  And it would be part of our next course.

Then she disappeared.  A few minutes later, four waiters, with the precision of synchronized swimmers, simultaneously placed four white bowls in front of the diners.  Each bowl had no more than two tablespoons of a concoction with “homemade tofu, bergamot, and honey.”  Then, for the final flourish, each of the four servers simultaneously whipped out a stainless steel garlic press with a piece of honeycomb inside, and each squeezed the press to drizzle fresh honey over our dessert.  Performance, panache, surprise, story, and a little bit of magic.  And it was delicious.  This was one of a hundred moments that made the meal exceptional and memorable.

After dinner we got to peek into the kitchen, filled with the cooks who make this spectacular food.  No surprise, things feel different when you pull back the curtain…cooks and staff are busily washing dishes, or heads-down prepping and running food.  They’re the engine that makes the magic possible, but the kitchen, of course, isn’t magical.  It’s a shop floor.

The interactions at the “front of the house” (with the maitre d’, the waiters, the sommelier, the honey-squeezers) and the “back of the house” are distinct.  The front of the house is populated by storytellers who are creating an experience.  In the back of the house, amazing food is created.  But the skills required of folks in the front and the back might have very little overlap.  And you need them all to create an exceptional dining experience, and to deliver it night after night.

*                           *                               *                                 *                                 *

So now, with the restaurant story as backdrop, fill in the blanks at your favorite nonprofit.  Who’s who?   You can do your own, magazine-quiz-style “match column 1 with column 2”:

1. Waiter                                                              A. Program staff

2. Line cook                                                        B. Head of Development

3. Chef/owner                                                    C. Fundraiser

4. Maitre d’ / General Manager                   D. CEO

Who creates the reality?  Who is doing “the real work?”  Without whom do you fail? (hint: it’s everyone).

To take the analogy a step further, if restaurants were run like much of the nonprofit sector:

  1. The only job anyone would ever want would be to work in the kitchen
  2. It would be impossible to hire waiters
  3. There’d be no set menu – diners would pick what they want; and over time the kitchen could end up serving tons of dishes that they don’t best know how to cook
  4. Before choosing a restaurant, diners would ask whether the restaurant spends more than 10% of its operating budget on waitstaff.

Bon appetit.

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Yesterday night, for the first time, my wife ordered me a pair of shoes on Zappos.  This morning, she called me to say, “This is amazing.  They just arrived!  I don’t know how they do it.”

I know.

It’s magic.

Think about how incredible this is: with all the technology in the world, with all the jaded consumerism, with all the hype, Zappos did something so cool that it was worth picking up the phone and telling someone about.  And they’re delivering shoes.  Shoes!!!

If they can create magic with shoes, anything is possible.  Anything.

With magic, you’ve got traction, momentum, joy, surprise.  Without it, you’re just pushing a boulder up a hill.

So go on, take whatever you’re working on and insert some magic, create an ideavirus that will spread.

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