Most people have a pretty good idea how to structure a wedding or bar mitzvah having attended many over the years. Yet, few know how to orchestrate other kinds of parties that are less common and often less formal. After serving as a Disc Jockey and Master of Ceremonies at many such events, I’ve learned four major secrets that go into making such parties a huge success. They may seem obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know or follow these basic tips:

    1. Welcome your guests and make sure to honor the occasion.
    2. Arrange enough activities that your guests can participate actively in the festivities, whether or not they want to dance.
    3. Don’t orchestrate the event so tightly that guests don’t have time to interact with one another, dance if they so choose or enjoy the party’s natural flow.
    4. Communicate with your DJ/MC before and during the event to make sure that he or she understands your wishes, but also trust him or her to fine tune the plan as the event unfolds.

Welcoming Guests and Honoring the Occasion. Many hosts and hostesses want to keep their special event informal. For some, it’s simply a matter of style—they’d rather greet their guests personally and avoid any hoopla. Others are reluctant to speak in front of a crowd, even if it consists primarily of friends and family.

Despite this reluctance, I recommend planning some form of introduction and welcome within the first 60 to 90 minutes of the affair. This is a great time to thank people for coming and reminding them of why they are gathered together. For those who have traveled a long way or made other sacrifices to get to the event, this provides a good opportunity to acknowledge their presence. If the event is a birthday, anniversary, reunion, retirement party or other special occasion, this initial welcome gives guests a chance to pay tribute to and possibly toast the celebrants.

Most guests wait for this initial greeting to formally launch the event. If you don’t want to do this personally, you can ask another person to serve as the MC or request the DJ to do it. That’s what you’re paying him or her for. Make sure that you tell the DJ whom you want to introduce and any special people you want to acknowledge.

Other Activities to Enliven Your Event. Most people organize their parties around the food service. They request background music during appetizers and cocktails, dinner music while guests are eating, and then dance music during or after dessert. In between, some party planners and hosts like to schedule blessings over the food, candle-lighting ceremonies that honor special family members and guests, toasts to the celebrants, special readings, and/or personal stories or tributes. Showing a short video or slide show is another great way to enliven the event and celebrate the special occasion. At a recent reunion, one of the class officers developed a slide show by taking pictures of various pages in the school yearbook, and it was extremely well received.

Talk to your DJ about ways he or she can enliven the event. Playing the chicken dance or the Macarena may be a good way to get young people actively involved, but what about parties for the older crowd? Those Oldies but Goodies uses several different activities to make events more fun, including musical trivia, special timelines that feature the top tunes and historical events occurring on key dates in the lives of honored guests, and special dances designed for the celebrants, fathers, mothers, and other family members. For milestone anniversaries, I like to invite the couple up for a special dance during which I read a love poem while the couple dances to their favorite song.

Go with the Flow. One danger in planning an event is providing too much structure. Making the timeline and schedule too rigid can occasionally backfire. Sometimes folks are having too much fun conversing to move into the dinner hour at the appointed time. Allow some flexibility. Making toasts during the dinner hour, especially in between courses, will probably allow more time for dancing at the end of the meal. If the crowd isn’t dancing, it’s time for the DJ to use trivia or another activity to enrich the event. Beware of what we in the business call, “Putting on the brakes.” Just as the party gets into high gear and people start dancing, someone asks to make a toast or requests a special song that doesn’t fit that particular moment. Communicate with the DJ and give him or her permission to use some judgment once the party gets rolling. It’s easy enough to wait five or ten minutes until people are ready for a break before making the toast or cutting the cake. Give the DJ permission to fit in the “request” at an appropriate moment, rather than clearing the dance floor.

Communicate with the DJ and Trust His or Her Judgment. It’s your party, so make your wishes known. Many party planners like to pick out the music themselves, and most good DJs welcome their involvement. Letting the DJ know your favorite songs, artists, time periods, and style of music helps ensure that the event is tailored to your special wants and desires. It also helps the DJ select additional music that fits your personal taste. Knowing what not to play is also important, because the last thing the DJ (or host) wants to hear in the middle of the event is, “Oh no, I hate that song.” Once again, however, choose a DJ you trust and then allow him or her some discretion. They know what music is likely to get people on the dance floor, and which songs will entice even the most reluctant male to dance that one slow dance he promised his wife. The best parties are those that have some initial planning and structure, great communication and collaboration between the party planner and the DJ, and enough spontaneity to allow the participants to contribute to the party’s ebb and flow.

By Fred Slabine of Those Oldies But Goodies DJ/MC Entertainment