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Interviews - Ian Rowland

Huw Collingbourne interviews this influential and controversial British mentalist exclusively for Top Hat. One of Britain’s top mentalists, Ian Rowland is admired by many top performers and reviled by others. On the one hand, he has written what many people regard to be the definitive book on the art of ‘cold reading’. On the other hand, he has explained some of the principles of the art on American television. This has led some mentalists to accuse Ian of exposure.
We decided that it was time that Ian had the chance to give his own side of the story. In this interview, Ian tells us all about his views on exposure and gives us the low-down on that now famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) TV show. But first wanted to know a bit more about Ian’s own approach to performing…

Huw: To start things off, I wonder how you would describe yourself as a performer: a magician, a mentalist, a psychic entertainer? Or something else?
Ian Rowland: Mindreader. Sometimes, if the context warrants it, I add mind-motivator.

Huw: You seem unimpressed by John Edward (according to an article on your web site). Can you explain why, if Edward has so many 'misses', so many millions of viewers believe he's the real thing?
Ian Rowland: I don't presume to know what millions of people think or why. Ask them. My two cents guess would be hey believe because they want to. Psychic powers are as real as you want them to be.
Huw: Do you think there is at least the possibility that 'psychic's such as Edward or Sylvia Browne might, in fact, be genuine?
Ian Rowland: Of course. 'Possible' isn't the issue.

Huw: In the past, it seems there was a clear distinction between 'mental magicians' and 'psychics'. These days the boundaries seem a bit blurred. Many people who claim to be psychics in public acknowledge themselves to be mentalists among fellow performers. How do you feel about that?
Ian Rowland: Fine. Taking the "I'm for real" route can lead to problems, such as rather emotionally needy people latching on to you as a sort of all-knowing messiah. I prefer to follow the example of Mark Twain. He said "I always tell the truth. That way, I never have to remember anything". Works for me.

Huw: I know you are very interested in language as a tool of performance and persuasion. What, would you say, are the most important linguistic techniques that a magician or mentalist can employ to enhance their performance?
Ian Rowland: Am I? I'm not aware that I've any special interest in language as you suggest. Kenton Knepper seems to be the expert in that area.

Huw: Which book, or other resources, would you recommend to those performers who might want to learn how to make language work to their advantage?
Ian Rowland: No idea.
Huw: No idea? Hang on a minute! You’ve talked about this subject on previous occasions. On one magic discussion group, for example, you specifically recommended the following books, all of which deal with the use of language: Vance Packard, 'The Hidden Persuaders'; David Ogilvy, 'Ogilvy on Advertising'; Michael Wheeler, 'Lies, Damned Lies And Statistics'; A J Ayer, 'Language, Truth And Logic'; Stephan Schiffman, 'Cold Calling Techniques'; Stephen Pinker, 'The Language Instinct' and S Morris Engel, 'Fallacies And Pitfalls Of Language'. In fact, you specifically recommended the Engel book as “a masterpiece of analysis and enjoyable writing which goes light years beyond Kenton Knepper’s 'Wonder Words'”. I'd say that suggests to me that you might have slightly more of an informed interest in linguistic techniques than you would have us believe!
Ian Rowland: Well, it's perfectly possible I've got my own wires crossed and that I've contradicted myself. Could happen. However, I guess there's a distinction to be made. I took your question to refer to ways in which one can apply language deceptively in live performance (the kind of thing which Kenton Knepper writes about). If I recall correctly, the books I listed have very little to do with this. They have more to do with things like persuasion (in different media, and in different contexts, not necessarily anything to do with spoken words during a performance) and the way one can subvert the reasoning process by which people reach conclusions. This DOES interest me a great deal.

Huw: Most of the time you seem to take quite a subtle approach to the nuances of performance. But, at the other extreme, you also do 'sensational' routines such as 'psychic surgery'. What's the attraction of blood and guts?
Ian Rowland: I'm not attracted to blood and guts. Now and again certain kinds of sceptical audiences like to see the psychic surgery routine, so if it's appropriate then I'll include it. I'm not sure it serves any great purpose, but it is fairly dramatic and it can be fun.
Huw: On your site, you also say that you often get requests to hammer nails into your head. I haven't seen you do that (I'm glad to say!). It sounds incredibly dangerous. Is it? If not, how can I learn to do it… .?"
Ian Rowland: It can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. It's the kind of thing that you have to be shown how to do by someone who already knows the fine details. I was shown by a friend in Italy.

Huw: As you know, many mentalists have attacked you for exposing secrets. recently, for instance, you did an exposure of cold reading in America on ABC's 'Primetime' show. How do you justify what you did?
Ian Rowland: Sorry, but I can't agree with the premises in your question.… “Many mentalists”? I'm not sure about this. I know there are some people who belong to a certain prominent organisation and who have written angry comments. I respect the organisation they belong to, but I'm not sure they are very good representatives of it. There may be others critics too, outside that particular organisation. However, these people do not necessarily constitute a well-informed majority. I've had lots and lots of emails from mentalists congratulating me on my work, encouraging me, supporting me. This includes some people in that same prominent organisation.
So you can slice and dice the evidence either way. And in any event, whatever opinions may be flying around, I don't accept that I'm guilty of exposure and I don't think the facts support that allegation.… "attacked you for exposing secrets"? This may be true of some of the people concerned. But it would be a mistake to credit all of them with a logical, cause-and-effect basis for their anger. Some of them were attacking me long before the Primetime piece was even a twinkle in a producer's eye. One of them hates me simply because a long time ago he asked for a free review copy of my cold reading book and I refused to give him one, on the basis that I'd never be allowed to see whatever review he wrote. He's disliked me ever since. And he's entitled to. Why should I imagine everyone's going to like me? I'd prefer it if he and I were friends, because I'm a friends sort of person. But he doesn't want that, and it's his loss. Talk to people in this art who've made friends with me. Ask them if I'm a good friend to have.
”You did an exposure on Primetime”?
I disagree. Look, before I get into this, let me say that if people just want to get angry and throw a few insults my way, well, that's their choice. Be my guest. I have a lot of friends in this art, and they find a lot more in me than just a target for ill-founded abuse. Criticism is fine, but it's only worth anything - and worth paying attention to - if it's informed and constructive. So, for anyone who actually wants the facts, let me offer a few. I've been passionately interested in cold reading for a long time. I'm interested in what it can do, how and why it works and what it tells us about human nature. I've heard a lot of nonsense spoken about what CR can and can't achieve, both from sceptics and their opponents, but the only way to know is to try it. Prior to 'Primetime', I'd never had the chance to try CR in the style of a spirit medium doing the 'hotline to heaven' schtick. ABC television offered me this one-off golden opportunity to try cold reading in this style, and they were willing to take the experiment seriously, and to deal with all the moral, legal and tact issues involved. So I took it. And that's why I did it. To explore what impressions this style of cold reading can give to the performer (in this case myself) and the audience, and to deepen my own knowledge and experience in this field. Did I do it for money? No. I'm not saying if I got paid, or if I did how much, because nobody needs to know.
Let me just point out that this piece was produced by ABC News division, not the Entertainment division. Anyone who wants to know can call ABC News and ask what their official policy is on paying contributors.
Did I do it for the attention, or to build my career? No. I don't need the attention. And in any case you can't build a career giving this kind of demonstration. Did I do it to sell more books? No. Did I do it because I'm on a crusade to protect or educate the public? No. The public aren't asking me to educate or protect them, and even if they were, who's to say I'm a fit teacher? I haven't seen the piece yet, but apparently the way ABC editorialised it, they gave the impression that I'm on some sort of mission. Well, they skewed it that way, not me. That's not what it was about as far as I'm concerned.
Did I do it to hit out at prominent psychics or to strike a blow for sceptics? No. I did it for the reason stated. End of story. If sceptics want to make capital out of it, that's their business, not mine.
So, that's my reason. But I wouldn't have done it at all if I felt it constituted exposure. I have never, and will never, expose any secret or methodology which will harm contemporary entertainers (be they magicians or mentalists). I'm okay with giving a lecture or going on TV and explaining psychic surgery, because no-one uses it for entertainment. Even then, I won't show the thumb-tip method because I think this is crossing the line.
So I use a cruder, less sophisticated method which is good enough to get the basic point across about con artists, but not going to damage the interests of entertainers. I'm pretty widely read in mentalism, but I've yet to see a mentalism trick or routine for which the 'method' in the instructions says 'use cold reading'. Now, it's true that some mentalists use CR to embellish a trick or dress up a routine. But some of them also use dry ice or candles or spooky music or black clothing. That doesn't make dry ice or candles etc. a magic secret. If I go round telling people how to get frozen CO2 and let it melt in water, is this a magic secret? Of course not, even though some magi may apply it to a pet mentalism effect. Ditto with CR. It's not a magic secret. If I thought it was, I would treat it as such. Other people are, of course, entitled to a different opinion. And I'm entitled to mine, based on the 36 years I've been entertaining people with magic and mentalism. That's the way it looks to me.

Huw: Derren Brown often explains many of his routines by reference to psychology. Frankly, it seems to me that claiming a special psychological acuity is no more satisfactory an explanation of some of Derren's 'miracles' than claiming a psychic ability. Wouldn't it be reasonable, therefore, to make a case for exposing some of Derren Brown's claims as 'fraudulent'?
Ian Rowland: Not in my book because I'm not into exposure. See above. As for Derren, he's entertaining people and doing a superb job of it. He and his team who put together the 'Mind Control' shows are deserving of the highest praise and admiration.

Huw: Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to learn the ropes of mentalism or 'psychic entertainment'? Where should they start and what should they aim for?
Ian Rowland: I wouldn't give advice, because I'm not in any position to. I suppose if pushed I'd say don't go round asking for advice! Just do it. Perform. Learn by experience. It's the only teacher that matters.

For more information on Ian Rowland, or to order the latest (3rd) edition of his book, ‘Full Facts Of Cold Reading’, visit his web site:
Ian tells us that his book has been revised and reset throughout. There are about 15,000 more words than in the 2nd edition, including a completely new section about the potential application of cold reading techniques in nonpsychic contexts. It is only available from Ian’s web site.

A ‘primer’ on Cold Reading
Cold reading is a method of secretly pumping one or more people for information in such a way that it appears that the ‘psychic’ or mentalist has actually obtained the information by mindreading or (more commonly) from the spirits of the dead. Some people, such as James Randi, believe that many top American psychics including John Edward use ‘cold reading’. You can find a brief discussion of cold reading on Randi’s site:

By Huw Collingbourne




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