Nakul Shenoy, Mindreader And Mystery Entertainer on Applying Lessons From Magic in Business

Nakul Shenoy, Mindreader and mystery entertainer chats with Amit Somani, Managing Partner Prime Venture Partners.

In this conversation they discuss science and magic, how magic can be used in persuasion and in business, customer discovery process and connecting with people.

With his imagination kindled at age five by ‘Mandrake The Magician’ comic books, Nakul Shenoy first took stage as a 15-year-old entertaining large gatherings with his magical shows. Two and a half decades later, this expert magician and hypnotist enthrals audiences like few others can, and progresses along in his self-professed dream to be “a real-life Mandrake”.

Listen to the episode to learn about:

1:41 - Science and magic are deeply connected.

3:00 - Laws of science behind magic tricks

4:31 - Suggestion and persuasion methods instead of hypnosis.

7:11 - Traits of magician to be applied in business

10:07 - Why read body language books

15:26 - Three mantras of connecting with people

19:33 - Using service magic to create Wow! moments

22:52 - Customer discovery process

28:57 - 360 or 180-degree vision

Book recommendations

Neuroscience of Magic



The Definitive Book of Body Language

Service Magic: The Art of Amazing Your Customers

How To Develop A Super-Power Memory

Read the complete transcript below:

Amit Somani 0:45

Welcome to the Prime Venture Partners podcast. Today I'm delighted to have with us Nakul Shenoy, a mind reader, a mystery entertainer, a UX design engineer and a dear friend who also hangs out a lot on Twitter. Welcome to the show, Nakul.

Nakul Shenoy 1:02

Thank Amit, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

Amit Somani 1:05

Nakul, you recently did a show for us at prime ventures and all of our founders. And it was obviously very, very entertaining, very mysterious, and very wondrous. I had a quote that one of my colleagues Vineet said, at the end of the show, going something like I shouldn't have a scientific mindset in magic shows, everything is too easy to crack. This was a thought before the show started. And as it ended, he said, science is a lie. They all fooled us for all these years. What do you think about the relationship between science and magic?

Nakul Shenoy 1:41

Science and magic are very deeply intertwined. Magicians have always been one of the people who have taken the newest advances in science, applied it to theatrical performance, and made it completely mystifying not just for their audiences but also for the scientists themselves. So yeah, they're absolutely totally entwined. One of the primary stories that comes to mind is Robert-Houdin who actually is known as the father of magic, modern art magic, performing and in fact using electromagnets in the Middle East conflict when electromagnets were just about coming out and trying to show this whole thing of my magic is more powerful than your magic kind of thing. It gets into theology, it gets into religion a bit. But yeah, and we continue to do that, as you saw a lot of what I did had connections to modern science and drew from there.

Amit Somani 2:49

So clearly Nakul, when you're doing magic, you're not obviously violating science principles. So something else is going on to generate that mystery. What is going on there?

Nakul Shenoy 2:59

The way I like to look at it is magicians or any performers essentially take one science and use it to break another, for example, in a classic magic effect, you may see a magician floats somebody in the air now that is breaking the laws of gravity. But the way we are going to achieve that is by perhaps using laws, other laws of physics, the laws of refraction, or optical illusions and things like that, since I deal with the power of the mind and my shows are more about mystery entertainment and mind reading. What I did was turn certain philosophies, concepts of psychology and use it on your wonderful gathering because I thought that would interest them because this is a very intelligent audience and what I intended was exactly what your guest said, which is, can I take them down a path where they think oh, this is so simple but then pull the carpet from under their feet are so much that the only explanation that it was all a miracle.

Amit Somani 4:08

So, you know I have lots of questions on this maybe one more and then we move on which is, where is the boundary line between magic and hypnosis and the occult and the sheer sleight of the hand? Is this all like a blurry line or in your own parlance are there segmentations of this thing?

Nakul Shenoy 4:31

So, it depends on what kind of a performer you are. I am a mentalist, I would be using skill sets from across the genre. So, I have been a hypnotist. I learned hypnosis very young. So, I use concepts of hypnosis in what I do. Perhaps not as hypnosis itself, but as suggestion and persuasion methods.

We use a lot of behavioral economic things in terms of that whole thing of when would you take a particular decision what particular word or action from my side might impact that how make you change that decision and so lead you down a path. And again, where we play on the mystery continuum as such in terms of being a trickster to a magician to a mentalist to a psychic to perhaps a Godman and beyond, messiah for us, is completely based on the person that's playing that character.

Sadly, as we get along, in magic and along magic, I think one of the greatest losses is that we go away from the aspect of believing in real magic and some of us like to leave our audiences with that feeling that there is something called real magic. And at least leave them with a sense of wonder and not want to find an explanation, because the moment you find the explanation to how something is done, that's where you lose the whole magic element of it and all that remains is the method or the trick. And that is not exciting to anybody, not to the performer and not to the audience.

Amit Somani 6:16

Yeah, even somebody as celebrated and well known as Neil Armstrong has this beautiful quote that you shared with me. Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand. So you definitely left a lot of us wondering, and yet not wanting to change the wonder too much. I think that's interesting.

Switching gears Nakul, if we were to apply this to real life, a lot of our listeners are startup entrepreneurs, founders, perhaps even working in larger companies. What are the ways in which you can apply some of the lessons from here, I'm not necessarily saying do a card trick at work, which you can apply to various things. Obviously, we're going to talk about design because that's your other love. But, maybe I'm thinking in a negotiation it might be useful. Maybe it could be useful in persuasion, maybe it could be useful in presentation. So if you can elaborate a bit on application of this into a business context or startup context.

Nakul Shenoy 7:11

Yes, so one of course, I would always recommend people try their hand at magic because magic is one of those hobbies that makes you a real critical thinker. We have learned recently with science, that there's no real thing as multitasking. We do partial tasking or parallel tasking and not really multitask.

But a magician, as a recent book called neuroscience of magic has proven happen to actually do multitasking because at any point in time, they are able to do three or four things at in parallel, and not stopping one and taking on another task because the mind the body and the tongue in that sense and eyes have to be doing four different things, many of the times what the audience sees, what the magician does, and what magician is saying, and what the magician is actually thinking at that point in time are very, very, very different.

So rather than do a theory session on that, I would highly recommend neuroscience of magic. In other sense, there's also this whole element of applying a lot of traits of a magician to the different things that you do like you rightly said. Some of the skills that we learn in terms of audience management in terms of keeping people's attention directed somewhere, the word used is misdirection, but what it really means is that we control the direction of an audience of a spectator of an individual or hundreds of people at a time to very specific actions of ours, which are either what we want you to see or actually always what we want you to see, because what we don't want you to see, you never see.

So that's I think the master class in terms of how we can own other people's perceptions completely in terms of either what they saw, or what they think they saw. So yes, in that sense, I would highly recommend people actually pick up even a couple of tricks and my book itself is a good start, "Smart course in magic", but either way, it's a fantastic thing to just pick up that skill.

Amit Somani 9:33

Having seen examples in the real world of people who are not classically magicians or mind reader's applying it. So you know Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, often talks about of course, Dilbert itself, but even somebody such as Donald Trump, somebody who uses hypnosis, mass hypnosis magic, is that it's not as trivial as he looks in terms of his shenanigans. He's actually doing something intentionally and hence succeeding in terms of getting political capital.

Nakul Shenoy 10:07

Yes. I actually read that book and it was a very interesting take. And I agree in terms of a lot of leaders, not just Trump, actually go through training which has its root in either neuro linguistic programming or hypnosis. Actually, they may not learn these things as those disciplines but essentially what they end up doing is get training or an understanding of how can I influence people and, again, Cialdini, book influence is where it all started and the newest one "Pre suasion" is fascinating, because again, that's essentially what it is. It starts off with what a magician or a mind reader perhaps does at different levels of controlling people's perceptions.

But then if we can bring it into what is known as conversational hypnosis, or even conversational persuasion, there are a lot of things that happen completely just with your body language with the way you're able to communicate something more important than all that Amit. I see the need for everybody to read our books and learn from books on body language like Allan Pease book on "The Definitive Book of Body Language" , simply because body language is not behavioral it is biological. We are born with these traits of either influencing others or reading what others are thinking or wanting to do, just with minute body language, and what's better known as micro expressions.

And so the thing is, why do I call it biological not me, these are from the books. But why it's called biological is just a small baby that just born is perhaps the best exponent of body language than any of us can ever get, you know, as we get along in life, we forget what we are born with and we sort of lose track of it. And then we have to again, go back to the books and sort of try to learn it again. But essentially, look at the way a mother is able to just look at a baby and know what the baby wants or in that sense what a baby knows, by just looking at you to make you do certain things, even very young children are able to do that.

So there's a lot of things that we can learn from here and these few books you and I both mentioned are excellent starting points. But the real thing is in the real world, essentially since a lot of our viewers here are people who deal with a lot of people you are always interacting with people. So there are these aspects of instant rapo, small things you can do from books like "Switch" and things like that.

I have had to experience this and then try it in my events and in my one on one interactions to know that it really worked. One of the things I learned way back, I learned hypnosis almost 20-25 years back, and one of the things I learned is how just by modulating my own breathing, and my speed of speech, I can influence the person in front of me. And that's fascinating, because the first time I heard it, I was like, What? This is nonsense!

And then I tried because that time I was still in college and you know, in class, you just look at this person sitting in front, and you sort of match your breath and then you just sort of take a breath and just hold halfway and you certainly see this person, you know, be uncomfortable in conversation, you speed up your talk or slow it down to match what is the speed of the person in front of you the tone and tenor of the speech by the person in front of you, of course not going to the level of being a mimic. And you see that it completely influences them and you see a pleasant change. I know you have a lot more questions, I'll stop.

Amit Somani 14:33

So lots of gems in there. Of course, I love Cialdini's books "Influence” and “Pre-suasion". I think Chip and Dan heath books, "Switch" all these things are very useful. So it's very interesting that you as a mind reader and a magician are reading about these books much as we do, as communicators or business folks or even product managers and designers, which we'll come to in a second.

So, a lot of our listeners are potentially startup entrepreneurs and they're selling all the time. They're presenting all the time. They're selling to customers, they're selling to employees. They're also selling to people like us venture capitalists for raising funding. So maybe can you share one or two practical tips that they could potentially apply just so that they can connect with the concept? I'm not expecting a course in a nanosecond here. But just something that, Hey, if you're presenting, notice this. Like the breathing was an amazing one that you said. And I've seen great orators do that. But maybe just another tip that would be useful.

Nakul Shenoy 15:28

My essential background is that I am a communication person. So I do connect a lot to all these books and the learnings in that. It's really difficult to give one or two tips, but let me try one of the things we forget and even as magicians. When I learned magic way back, I learned one of the first tricks was how to cut a rope and join it back and one of the things that took me years to realize is that when I took a rope and I cut it and I tied it together, my eyes and my attention and my body, everything was focused on one thing, the rope and the scissor in my hand, which meant I was knowingly or unknowingly focusing the entire audience's attention on my hand. It took a lot of years to get over that and be able to do it, not looking at my hands, but look at the audience and continue talking and make them look where I wanted to make them look. And that, for me, would be the primary thing to give as a suggestion.

We forget the most primary things when we are communicating, eye contact. Just maintaining eye contact with our listeners and if it's a larger group, giving everybody an equal amount of eye contact and not just sticking to one pleasant face or one favorable face in the audience and alienating everybody is the primary thing we should focus on because knowingly or unknowingly, like I said, we don't need to have read a body language book. This is biological. So people will catch on to the fact that Oh! this person is not connecting to me and so that will put a lot of things on the backfoot and as everybody knows one no right at the start, is equivalent to 10 yeses in terms of if you start off an interview with a no in somebody's mind, and there's mostly no somebody's mind without you even knowing it. It takes 10 favorable things for it to even come back to ground zero.

And the second thing I want to add the most most important thing, even more than the eye contact is a smile, a genuine smile. Nothing worked better than that. A genuine smile that shows how passionate you are about the topic at hand! How passionate and close to heart that is, helps you sell something more than anything else. And so yeah, we forget to smile and in a world where we are today, it's very, very difficult, I guess. And it's something that connects more than anything. And point three would be a connect, if we can build personal direct connects with our audiences with anybody we are interacting with, friends go out of their way to help you. And so, for me, that's been the three mantras I stick by it and it's like you put a gun to my head right now. These are the three things I would recommend.

Amit Somani 18:49

Wonderful! Switching gears Nakul, let's talk about design and user experience. And one of the things that I have always proposed and I'm a big fan of is this notion of Aha moments. And this is especially true for consumer products, whether it's digital or even phyigital these days. Where as soon as you get involved in the product, your first experience is a wow. And a lot has been said about it. A lot has been written about it. And when you were doing your performance the other day, I couldn't, but you know, think about connecting the two. So can you talk a little bit about, you know, principles of magic that you applied in digital design, and this notion of generating wow, and aha's.

Nakul Shenoy 19:33

Service magic comes to mind Amit. The business book on service magic essentially talks exactly what you said about giving that unexpected, Wow. And with regard to design that thought holds interestingly, a lot of the top designers have dabbled in magic. You see a lot of them having some connection to magic and you see that coming through the whole info design world that has now morphed into user experience.

But somebody like Amazon comes to mind when you say user experience with magic because they are working not just on getting you what you know you want but also trying to get you things that you still don't know you want. One of the patents of Amazon comes to mind which is called predictive delivery, which actually maps and tries to find out which user would like to buy something if it was available to them in a very short notice. I'm not sure if this is already implemented, but I read about this somewhere. And the element was that if they can get a product closest to me because they know I am one of those people who will buy it. Then they will get it into a nearby warehouse and keep it there, which essentially means that it would pop out to me when I log in saying, hey, you may be interested in this product, and this is on prime and it can reach you in the next four hours, or whatever that is.

And the other thing that comes to mind is Disney itself. Disney’s variable tags that completely customize and personalize an experience within Disney World. I have not yet been there but what I hear and read is that every experience a person goes through is customized to a great extent based on these tags that they are wearing. And people don't know this and so they get experiences which they like, but they don't know they like because Disney knows that based on the various things they've already done within the past, either that day or in past experiences. So yes, a bit of this whole mind reading thing, I guess is what we are all aiming for. Can I know what my user wants? Even before my user knows. And can I then deliver it to that user without them having to click and tell me something and fill a form and all that stuff? Can we go predictive in terms of the entire user experience?

Amit Somani 22:24

So Nakul, when you are designing something for a client, like in terms of the user experience, part of it, how do you do the mind reading part or the customer discovery? Are there some lessons that you learn from there? Because unlike an audience where you are putting on a show, where you have something in mind, you know a little bit about the audience here, you're helping somebody design an app for you know, service delivery. Now, it's very different. So can you talk a little bit about your customer discovery process?

Nakul Shenoy 22:52

I have been embedded in the whole design thinking side of things for a number of years. As you know, I worked with SAP from 2005 to 2010. And right through I was embedded into this whole design thinking philosophy before which it was put yourself in the user's shoes. So I have had firsthand experience and that's been my foray in terms of design of actually doing full cycle design and interviewing people observing them and running a lot of formative and usability testing for top companies from around the world.

And this is what really fascinates me because that's what I really see a connection between what I do on stage, and what I want I do within a lab setup or even when I'm visiting customer sites to just observe and see how a warehouse worked. When they are trying to say, Oh, this, everything happens on the SAP system, but then you see a lot of these small little post its or a long printouts on there desk and you try to figure out what is that, therefore and you realize that a lot of work actually happens on those pieces of paper and not in the system, and then you try to come back and figure, how can we make it completely back into the system, which means there's a lot of things that the user really wants, which is not included in that design.

And that is one of the things and so, how does my kind of skill sets help because one of the things I have worked on and again, these books will help you is observation. We have over the years trained ourselves not to look, right. I mean, let me try something with all of our audiences right now that are listening. I want you to just cover your watch. If you're wearing a watch on your hand right now, I want you to cover it. And I want you to in your mind think of the number six on your watch. Now watch is special, each of us has a watch it sort of called out to us or was gifted to us. And so when you now think in your mind this watch in your hand, it’s your favorite watch if you have a lot of them.

What is number six on your watch because number six is very special. You know, it's like the insignia of a company or some it is, in fact the insignia of a company for some a just dot, for some it is the number six now that could be a bold or italic, it could be gold, it could be silver. Just in your mind, I want you to try and lock on to what number six in your watch looks like? Do that now. And when you're locked, I want you to look at your watch. And I want you to see how close or far away from that six you were. And remember, this is a watch you’ve worn for such a long time and this is a watch you look at so many times in a day. If you are wearing an Apple Watch, perhaps I should have said but can you remember the watch facethat you have.

But you know, this small little thing Amit changed my life, I read it in a book called,” How to develop a super human memory”, by Harry Lorayne, about 25 or more years back. And it basically told me that we have trained ourselves not to look, we have trained ourselves to only see the things that we want to see, which explains how we drive through home to office in a regular non corona world, and do not look at any of the billboards that are on our way we do when we look at a newspaper, we do not see 90% of the ads with articles that are there. And so, oh, by the way, the reason I came up with this for you right now was not just about number six, you just looked at your watch, but without looking back at your watch, can you tell me the time and that is the moment that happened to me, Amit, that is what shocked me that I just looked at my watch. I’d looked at number six, but I had not observed or caught on to the time. You know, our mind looks at everything. It’s not like it is shutting down. But it is in fact, that whole thing of the mind having been trained or our brain having been trained not to remember things. So that’s one of the first things we should do, unlearn and learn how to observe. And I think that will solve a lot of these problems that we are talking about.

Amit Somani 27:26

So Nakul, Daniel Kahneman, who has this absolutely epic book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, one of the cognitive biases he talks about in that book is, what you see is all there is. So you make decisions based on what you see and what you just illustrated with the watch example is perhaps that we’re not even seeing enough. We’re sort of in this microscopic tunnel vision or whatever else we are distracted by and hence probably making poor decisions.

Nakul Shenoy 27:51

Amit, I will complicate that slightly further for you. This whole aspect that Kahneman talks about has been also talked about in a lot of other books. And of course, he’s the god of it right now, the thing is, let’s go to this example of you going and meeting somebody for the first time. You walk in, and this person is walking up to you, and you now shake hands with this person and say, Hi! I’m Amit and give him a tight shake hand. Of course, in a pre corona world. Now, it’s namaste!. But the aspect of it is, at what point do you think this point of observation started? Was it the point when you walked up and said, Hi! Was it the point when you shook hands? At what point do you think that happened?

Amit Somani 28:47

I would suspect even before as soon as you show up in their radial vision, like the entire 360 vision, right, just saying, oh, who is this walking up? And what is my sense about them?

Nakul Shenoy 28:57

Exactly Amit. But like I just said, I was gonna be complicated for you. That 360 degree vision, you’re talking or 180 degree vision in that sense is absolutely right. But it’s not when I know I have perceived them. It is when the mind perceives them and the mind is doing a lot of unconscious things. And the mind does one thing, which is very, very, very sad, which is good from a human perspective, is it categorizes. So the moment you’re even walking into an airport, and you have hundreds of people walking out your mind is looking at all these hundred, categorizing them into these small boxes of stereotypes that are in your mind and this you do not yet know and so when I have now walked up to you, your mind recognizes me as one of those stereotypes that he had pre assigned me and has already slotted me into a like or a dislike category. And that is where the complication really starts because you don’t know how your mind has categorized this person. All you know is whether you suddenly feel like or dislike this person. And if we notice, then we can use that information both from the perceiver and the person meeting, we can perhaps use it to our advantage and give this person a second chance.

Amit Somani 30:18

Absolutely very, very fascinating. And a lovely, mysterious wondrous note to perhaps wrap up on. We could go on for hours. But Nakul, thank you so much for being on the Prime Venture Partners Podcast. Lots of interesting insight, lots of book recommendations, we’ll get some of those offline from you and added to the show notes. Thanks again, Nakul for joining us on the show.

Nakul Shenoy 30:40

Amit, thank you so much. It was a pleasure. I talked too much as you know, but I hope this was all useful. And thank you so much.

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