“Wow” Doesn’t Happen By Accident – By Stu Chisholm

January 15, 2013 by Stu Chisholm

PREPARATION: THE ONLY WAY TO AMAZE

Everyone is looking for that one big thing they can do to really set themselves apart. I remember my first “wow factor” moment. At a wedding, my cocktail hour music was playing as the bride’s mother came up to me and said, with excited expectation in her voice, “The bride and groom are going to cut the cake now!” I just blinked at her. Back then, a DJ might announce the cutting of the cake, but more often than not, we ignored it, because the photographers didn’t want too many people around interfering with their all-important photo. So I announced the cake cutting, and as I watched the whole thing play out, I kept thinking, “There’s got to be something more I can do with this.” The answer would come at work.

SONIC WORKPLACE LARCENY

At that time, “work” was in radio at a small AM daytimer that I was helping to get refurbished and back on the air. While going over the music and production libraries, I found a huge stash of sound effects discs, and the light bulb came on! I “borrowed” two sounds: a chainsaw and a hacksaw. At the next wedding, with permission and a tiny bit of rehearsal with the couple, we made the cake cutting a centerpiece moment, the audience counting down the first slice as the sound of the chainsaw buzzed and the crowd burst into laughter. The “Michigan Wedding Cake Massacre” was born!  After putting it on my demo tape, it became the most requested item on my menu of activities in the mid-’80s.

Other ideas spun off from this: a more elegant version for the “white glove” crowd, sound effects for the toasts, samples and drop-ins for the dance portions and so on. That one small idea became the genesis of a huge variety of bits that I include in my shows to this day, chainsaws aside.

THE KEY INGREDIENT

Whatever ideas you’ve come up with to set yourself apart and generate WOW, there is one thing that I have found indispensable. In fact, it’s so vital, it’s more important than any other aspect of my performance! That one thing is this: preparation.

As Todd Mitchem said at a Mobile Beat show years ago, the best “spontaneous” moments are carefully planned well in advance. This idea isn’t a shock for most of us, as we assemble timelines and/or agendas for our weddings. I’m talking about taking this up a notch, making detailed plans for specific activities. For any bit you do to have the maximum impact, from “Love Story” presentations to a new spin on the bouquet and garter tosses, you should be scripting it out and rehearsing it. Yes, out loud!  This will add “polish” to your show. It helps you feel more confident, which your audience picks up on, and helps your show “flow.”  Rehearsal is the difference between a pretty good show and WOW! It is also an ongoing process. Not only do we need to prepare and rehearse the specific shows we do, but we need to keep our skills up to par. That means placing a focus on ourselves; how we speak and present ourselves to the world.

EXPERT PREP TECHNIQUES

As a student at the Specs Howard School of Broadcasting (now “Media Arts”), I got in the habit of recording myself. Even when I’m not doing a show, I’ll record myself reading my script for the weekend, or reading a newspaper or magazine article. I imagine my neighbors thinking I’m a bit strange as they can hear me reading, with near theatrical inflection, in the…shall we say “reading room?” I’ve also stuck my good ol’ FlipCam in the corner at gigs, simply to see myself as others do. I have never regretted this! It has alerted me to many glitches in my speech, which can change, develop and, with a bit of work, disappear over time. Again, it’s an ongoing process.

Also, try to avoid actually reading FROM your script at a show!  I admit that I print up a “cheat sheet” in the form of a small card I can palm, containing vital information, such as the couple’s name (yes, I’ve blanked on that one before), the facility’s name, the name of the best man and so on. But try to memorize your scripts for every bit you do.

It might seem daunting until you consider that each bit is a self-contained “module” that you may well use over and over. With only small variations, you’ll do your bouquet and garter routine at almost every wedding, so once you’ve got it down, all you need to remember are the variables. This also goes for the introductions, toasts and so on. We also have the luxury of having a “safety net,” unlike, say, a Hollywood actor, in that we can have our scripts handy for review in-between each activity.

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT

There are TV shows that my wife, a television producer, calls “process shows.” In them, they show something happening from start to finish, such as creating a new kind of military rifle on “Sons of Guns,” or showing how a locomotive is made on “How It’s Made.” What I’m talking about here is also a process. It might sound a bit dry and even boring, but it is the foundation of WOW!

Nobody thinks about the hours of sitting in ground school learning all kinds of data; the rough-and-tumble of actual physical training; or the prep and loading of gear…when they watch a skydiving team at an air show. They just see the sum total of all of that and can’t help but say, “WOW!” And that, my friends, is THE secret to WOW factor: even if your audience doesn’t understand it, every hour of preparation shows in your finished product. In the online forums, DJs constantly talk about “giving our clients our best,” or “giving 110%.”  Solid preparation and rehearsal is how this is accomplished. There are no shortcuts.

Until next time, safe spinnin’!

Stu Chisholm, a mobile DJ in the Detroit area since 1979, has also been a nightclub DJ, done some radio, some commercial voice-over work and has even worked a roller skating rink! Stu attended the famous Specs Howard School of Broadcasting and has been a music collector since the age of seven. Stu’s guide to the profession, The Complete DJ, is available from ProDJ Publishing.
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Stu Chisholm Stu Chisholm (45 Posts)

Stu Chisholm had been collecting music since he was about eight years old and began his DJ career in 1979. After much hard work, trial-and-error, and a stint at the Specs Howard School of Broadcast Arts, he studied the DJ arts with famous Michigan broadcaster, Bill Henning, at a local college. Stu interned at Detroit’s rock powerhouse, WRIF. To his radio and mobile work Stu later added club gigs at Detroit’s best venues, and voiceover work. He has shared his extensive DJ experience through his Mobile Beat columns, as a seminar speaker and through his book, “The Complete Disc Jockey: A Comprehensive Manual for the Professional DJ,” released in 2008.


Filed Under: Issue #147, Performing