John Edward is a TV psychic best known for his series Crossing Over, in which he interviewed audience members and supposedly put them in touch with departed friends and family members. He gained, and maintains, a dedicated following, but the veracity of his purported "gift" is, to some, dubious at best. At one point he became such an infamous pop-culture figure that he was featured in the South Park episode, "The Biggest Douche in the Universe," lampooned for the vague statements and questionable practices that became trademarks of his act.
But don't take it from a satirical animated show. Take it from the people who know - those who have been in his audience, journalists who have investigated him, or even dedicated specialists like Skeptic's Michael Shermer, who has made something of a career of debunking pseudoscience and those in Edward's particular line of work.
So how does someone like John Edward get his own show and cultivate a legion of fans? By using a series of tricks that psychics, mediums, and mentalists have been using for years. He's vague, bludgeons his audience with questions, and gets his subjects to tell him everything he needs to know. While the show that made him famous is off the air, his career as a psychic has continued, both as a touring attraction and a show exclusively on Facebook Watch.
One key to learning the secrets of a studio audience is one of the oldest tricks in the book: eavesdropping on their conversations. When he was hosting his series, Crossing Over with John Edward, as well as the public events he hosted back then, Edward had cameras and microphones present for everything.
For his studio audience, the microphones and cameras likely didn't set off any red flags; you can't make a TV show with the necessary equipment. But visitors to his private events either didn't care about the recording equipment - not to mention staffers taking digital photos of the crowd prior to the show - or those things didn't register as a trick.
Michael O'Neill, an audience member for a taping of Crossing Over, told Skeptic:
His "production assistants" were always around while we waited to get into the studio. They told us to keep very quiet, and they overheard a lot. I think that the whole place is bugged somehow. Also, once in the studio we had to wait around for almost two hours before the show began. Throughout that time everybody was talking about what dead relative of theirs might pop up. Remember that all this occurred under microphones and with cameras already set up.
When psychics first begin working with a crowd, they make what's known as a "cold reading." This is essentially tossing out some bait to see if anyone in the audience bites. Edward would do this by saying something like, "I'm getting a George over here. I don't know what this means. George could be someone who passed over, he could be someone here, he could be someone that you know."
The statement is so general, it's hard not to get a couple of nibbles. When someone picked up on Edward's vague statement, he went after the mark and continued questioning them until he struck gold - or the well ran dry. Either way, if he got enough "hits" or correct answers, he looked like a genuine psychic.
Edward's vague statements also came when taking questions from the audience. While attending a private event, a writer for Skeptic observed Edward answering the question "Are the dead always with us?" with a non-answer. Edward said that when people pass over they sometimes return... and sometimes don't.
Furthermore, rather than make specific statements or reference specific people, Edward used terms like "father figure" - which could be a stand-in for any paternal person in someone's life, like an uncle, grandfather, older brother, teacher, friend, or neighbor.
A tactic that pounds audiences over the head, and keeps them from picking up on the fact that Edward is fishing for information, is known as "shotgunning." Rather than asking one question and waiting for someone to respond positively, he cycled through questions, names, letters, and numbers, rapid-fire, in search of a hit. A normal "shotgun" style cold reading by Edwards went like this:
I was getting pulled to this section and I feel like there is a father figure reference that they want me to bring through so I don't know if there is a father figure for you guys who passed but that to me would be like father, uncle, or grandfather. There is J or a G name that they want me to highlight so that's either someone who is living or passed but it's in that section over there, does that make sense?
By making a broad statement that anyone can answer, Edward waited for someone to answer, thus seeing who was the most susceptible to his line of questioning - and more willing and likely to galvanize participation. He ping-ponged from one person to the next - and one question to the next - to pile up as many hits he could, with all the misses getting lost in the shotgunning shuffle.
A twist on the concept of shotgunning is to throw out multiple possibilities. Rather than just saying, "I'm seeing the color green," one might say, "I'm seeing the color green, or blue, maybe even a purple or a purpleish blueish green."
The idea here is to suggest enough possibilities that the audience is sure to grasp onto something. If a psychic just tosses out one statement, the chance of hooking someone pretty much goes out the window. One exemplification of this tactic is a reading Edwards gave in Australia, in which he combined shotgunning with multiple choice:
There's a five connection that they want me to talk about so the five connection to me would either be the month of May because that's the fifth month or the fifth of a month, birthday or anniversary, but there is something "five" related that they want me to talk about and he has to have a child that's with him or there is a younger energy that passed so there's a younger person that's connected to him, correct?