Becoming a Crowd Whisperer by Mike “Dr. Frankenstand” Ryan

March 16, 2009 by Mike Ryan

Gain control without being controlling…by playing the top dog

Recently, while I was reading a book about the television show The Dog Whisperer, it occurred to me that often professional DJs have to take charge, kind like being a pack leader. For instance, this morning I was doing one of my charity tax write-off events for the Heart Association’s Jump Rope for Heart at a local elementary school. After doing these events for the past several years I’ve developed a program of sorts. This time, the school’s principle came up to me and asked for the mic; then he started to announce the beginning of the jump roping. I stopped him cold and politely took the mic away and in a fun way announced that’s wasn’t actually the way things were going to go. I took charge and started the show my way. The principle was cool with what I did and I believe he understood that I was in charge. He understood that I was there to put on a show. The proof: Afterward he insisted that the Heart Association book me for next year at his school.

The point is that I asserted myself, establishing that I was the professional and that we were going to do this event the way I had planned, rather than just off the cuff. Another good example of the need to take charge: If you’ve ever DJ’d for kids you know instinctively that you have to take control immediately. You truly have to be a strong pack leader, or else, as they say about kids, THEY WILL EAT YOU ALIVE!

Guiding Brides and Grooms

Without realizing it, I have also applied the pack leader mentality to weddings as well. In this case it’s more of a way of simplifying my job, while at the same time helping the feel that “it was their idea,” whatever “it” might be. For instance, I never tell the couple what to do or even what they should do. It’s always “From my experience this has worked great at other weddings…”

Also, when planning a wedding I establish two things immediately. One is the firm “suggestion” to do the First Dance right after the Grand Entrance. I explain that the G.E. is one of those “wow” experiences, with everyone clapping and cheering, and it makes for a nice flow into the First Dance–a “wow” experience leading seamlessly into an “ahhh” experience. Plus, it gets the First Dance out of the way and really brightens the spotlight on the bride and groom. I reinforce this concept by explaining that if they just go sit down after the Grand Entrance it is almost anti-climatic. Usually they understand.

Number two is that I make every effort to convince them that, contrary to tradition, we do the Garter Removal, followed by the Bouquet Toss. This way we end up with the ladies on the dance floor–which makes it much easier to crank up the dancing, as opposed to having the single men left out there on their own.

It’s all about forward momentum, keeping the flow going.
My biggest challenge with control happens when there is a wedding planner present. Since the planner and the bride already have an established relationship, I will always “defer” to the planner, unless the planner is a complete idiot. For example, I once did a wedding in another country and planner got so drunk that half the kitchen staff quit in protest. The mothers of the bride and groom promptly kicked her out.  On the way out she walked into a pole and almost knocked herself out. Obviously that was an extreme case. Once the planner was gone I re-established control and ended up being the hero of the event, even though I didn’t do anything any thing different than what I normally do.

I Gotta Have Some of Your Atttention

Another instance where establishing the pack leader situation comes in handy is when you need to get the audience’s attention-something that happens at nearly every event we do. I have heard several clever ways DJs get a crowd’s attention: standing in the middle of the dance floor until everyone quiets down; or on the microphone asking the audience, “If anyone can hear me, clap once, two times etc.,” to name just a couple. I have found one of the more successful ways to grab their attention is to play an “attention-getter” song. One of the more obvious, and fun, ones is the THX movie sound. It builds, and as it increases it gets everyone’s attention and most people seem to enjoy it. Short intro songs like that reestablish control and announce to everyone that something special is about to happen, without putting you in danger of appearing rude or obnoxious when getting on the mic. Other workable songs include the trumpet intro to Harry Connick Jr.’s “It Has to Be You” and the trumpet intro to the pool scene in the Rocky Horror Picture Show film. Short songs like these get their attention and often blow their minds as they try to think of where they heard it before. Sometimes I’ll use the “Beef-It’s What’s for Dinner” TV commercial music (from Aaron Copland’s piece “Rodeo: Hoe-Down”) to announce dinner, especially if beef is being served.

I once watched a friend of mine try unsuccessfully to get the crowd’s attention at a wedding. He was using a head-worn mic; and with his hands down to his sides, he walked around and announced the meal. No one noticed who was making the announcement…and no one moved. The problem was that everyone was talking and the DJ just looked like any other guest walking around, since he didn’t have a microphone in his hand that any one would notice. He kept announcing the same thing over and over again. He wasn’t in control and was having a difficult time gaining it back.

Challenges to Control

Requests. These are a “necessary evil” in our industry, at least from my perspective. As I see it, I’m hired to be entertaining (of course) but most of all for the music that I provide. And after decades of playing music I think I have a pretty good handle on what works and what doesn’t. Lets face it: Regardless of how many hours you are hired to play music for, there’s only so much music you can fit in. Considering how many songs are available, you–the DJ–have to take control. If people kept asking the captain of a ship to go in different directions, the ship would never reach it’s destination. It’s the same with a party. Typically my clients will provide some input on what kind of music they want, or more often they specify certain songs they want me to play. That gives me time to prepare the kinds of songs that will enhance their event. I may not play all the songs I come up with, but at least I’ll have some direction. If a request fits in, great, but if the request is way out in left field, then there’s no way I’m going play. I’m simply not going to let someone who isn’t a professional try to change my musical course-and likely take my ship toward the dangerous reef and certain danger of sinking. Ain’t gonna happen! Ultimately the DJ is the one who has to answer to the client if the party tanks. Trying to explain that you played everyone’s requests to an unhappy client isn’t going to cut it. It’s our responsibility to make sure the party rocks…and to do that we have to maintain control.

Alcohol. One surefire way to lose control is to get behind the eight-ball know as booze. If you have any important announcement to make, I recommend you make them before the booze starts pouring.

Here’s a typical scenario (I think-or is it just me?): It’s an adult-only party and the dance floor is full, when someone (usually a drunk woman-sorry ladies) comes up to me and tells me–not asks me–to change the song because “No one likes it.” Even as I point out that the dance floor is full, she’ll insist that no one is out there, and she guarantees that if I play her request, everyone will love it. This is a bit tricky because you don’t want to piss off any guests; but at the same time, you are in charge of the music. Of course I know I’m outvoted when two or three ladies approach me and even more so if they bring a man, as if to reinforce their request. But that’s a good time to relinquish control, as they are helping me play more to the crowd…them!

Team Building. No question, in a team-building situation it’s imperative that the DJ take charge and never, ever let go of it or hand off the mic, as far as I’m concerned. (And, by the way, if you do have to give up your microphone for whatever reason, I suggest putting a wind screen on it and afterwards throwing it away. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught a cold from someone else using my mic.)

I have heard it said that control starts with the first phone call. I agree. I like to do it in a pleasant way, to let my clients know they can trust that I know what I’m doing and that I will handle any problem that may arise. By taking immediate control, I plant the seeds of confidence: They know, without a doubt, that I am their DJ. The bride and groom have a lot of things they need to check off their to-do list, and I just took a major on off their list-along with a bit of the stress they are no doubt enduring.

Hopefully, these tips will help you develop the ability to guide your parties to success and your clients and guests into calmer waters. Be assertive and your DJ life will become a lot easier…as you become a Crowd Whisperer.

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Mike Ryan Mike Ryan (19 Posts)

Mike Ryan spins at the Corvette Diner in San Diego. He also invented the Air-Powered speaker stand the FRANKENSTAND. He is a 20-year veteran of radio, and served on ADJA and NACE boards.


Filed Under: Issues from 2009, Performing