Road Map To Reception Success by Stu Chisholm

September 6, 2010 by Stu Chisholm


Road Map to Reception Success

By Stu Chisholm

In his book, The Best Wedding Reception Ever, Peter Merry calls it an agenda. In my book, The Complete Disc Jockey, I call it an itinerary. Yet in a general sense it is a script, complete with cues, notes and a timeline. It is also what every DJ should create to keep their events running smoothly, on time and stress free.


Every DJ I’ve ever met has a set of forms that they either mail or provide online for their clients to tell them all the details of their wedding reception: times, location, the activities and music they prefer and, just as importantly, the things they DO NOT want. There might even be instructions for the ceremony itself if it is being held at the same location. So a good agenda/itinerary is the end result of all of this information, placed into a logical order according to a timeline.

Having a well-defined start and finish also gives us the end caps of the itinerary, which plots out the exact time that each event will happen. It’s a good thing to copy and pass along the basic itinerary to all of the other vendors, so that everyone knows what will happen when. I always try to conference with the photographer, videographer and caterer before buttoning down the final draft, and then I’ll e-mail a copy, as well as print a few copies to pass out on site. This way nobody has any uncertainty about what is going on at any given time.

The DJ’s copy is a bit more expansive, however, containing all of the announcements (scripted), music cues, names of the bridal party (sometimes twice; once for the grand entrance and again for the bridal dance) and a music list made up from returned forms and notes made from meetings, e-mails and phone conversations with the couple. I also include a prominent “Do Not Play” section to help me avoid the music and activities my clients would prefer not to have at their event.


An agenda/itinerary is NOT a panacea. It is not a guarantee of success. It is also not an edict to be set in stone.

Instead, it is a tool. In the hands of a skilled DJ and other wedding service providers, it makes a wedding and reception flow smoothly. Clashes between the needs of various vendors are avoided and, best of all, the evening plays out just as the clients have envisioned their event. A nice perk, of course, is that you, the DJ, get all of the credit!

That credit, however, is earned. First, it takes a lot of time and effort to generate an agenda. Changes may come fast and furious in the days leading up to the event. Then, once at the reception, one must work to adhere to it while, at the same time, remaining flexible enough to accommodate the inevitable delays or problems that each vendor might have. This means that all timelines will be general, so don’t try to synchronize each and every second. This way various events being moved up or down won’t throw you off track.


I like to head my agenda with the pertinent information that, under pressure, might just cause you to “space” (by which I mean entering that uncomfortable moment when something you’ve got down “cold” suddenly can’t be brought to mind). For an agenda, that means the couple’s name, the reception date and the name of the facility.

Next comes a checklist of things to be on the lookout for during the evening. For instance, before announcing the cutting of the wedding cake, it’s a good idea to see if the serving set is in place. (And I always carry one, just in case!) Before announcing the toast and passing the mic over to the best man or other speakers, make sure that the champagne glasses are full. Before announcing the bouquet & garter toss, make sure that the bride is indeed wearing a garter and, if she’s forgotten that detail during the excitement of the day, be sure to have a couple of spares handy. (I highly recommend the hand-made creations by Victoria, available at You might have other items depending on the type of event you’re doing.

Finally we get to our timeline. Most reception timelines begin with the time that we might have access to the building. I like to arrive somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours prior to the start. It is important that this detail be worked out with the facility in advance.

The next time notation is when the guests are due to arrive. This is normally when the music begins signaling what is often referred to as “cocktail hour”—that time between when the doors open and when dinner is served. Here we’ll also notate the music that the client prefers for this time.


The one thing that truly kicks off a reception is the arrival of the bridal party, or “grand entrance.” Your agenda should include everyone’s names, spelled phonetically, in the order they’ll be arriving. This will also include any scripted notes or “bits” that your client might have provided, and/or cues for any custom productions you might have made. A time to shine!

Events will differ in the order that they play out. In western states, it is popular for the couple to go right into their first dance and then a lively dance set before dinner is served. Other events will have the bride and groom heading straight up to the cake table for the cake cutting when the cake will be served as dessert rather than boxed for guests to take home. I have seen “Love Story” presentations used during the grand entrance, a follow-up to the toasts and prayer at the beginning of dinner, or my personal favorite, as a lead-in to the bride and groom’s first dance.

Whatever the order, each event gets a time notation. I like to use a color-coded system, putting names in red, scripted copy in black and music notations in green. This way you can quickly see the upcoming songs you’ll need at a glance. Continue this for each item, including those periods of open dancing, right on through until the last song of the night.

The tail end of my agenda is optional, but again, makes it easier for me to carry out the client’s wishes. I break out their music requests into categories and then list them in order by BPM. It’s a bit like having a road map, with possible detours and side trips, so that I can be ready for anything with an appropriate musical response. I highlight their “must play” tunes in red, so I’m sure that none will slip by forgotten.


At the Mobile Beat show in Chicago in 2002, Todd Mitchem told his audience that “the best spontaneous moments are scripted.” His point was that preparation is the key. If you have the steps of your show (a.k.a. the “nuts and bolts”) set down in your mind (or on your agenda), you can then better focus on your audience and let those special moments happen. An itinerary/agenda is a way to facilitate this. I also find that it is a great stress reliever, making it easier for me to carry out the wishes of the client while staying at ease, better able to be personable and in the moment.

The agenda/itinerary is nothing new or peculiar to DJs. Regular viewers of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon and other late-night entertainers might notice the blue cards they constantly consult. These are their agendas, helping them to stay on track while letting their personalities shine! So stay shiny and be sure to create an agenda for every show. Until next time, safe spinnin’!

Stu Chisholm Stu Chisholm (52 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: 2010