by Mark Luthringer
This article was written for Double Dutch, makers of event software and apps for planners and attendees
Let’s face it: Conferences can be intimidating for scores of your attendees, rife with potentially stressful social situations. It’s an event profs job to ensure everyone — especially the wallflowers — are engaged and having a good time. But how?
Chad Ricardo is the ‘Mitzvah Maestro’, doing 50+ events per year in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area, mostly mitzvahs but also corporate events, and he’s part of a thriving cottage industry of professional party leaders. We asked him for tips on breaking the ice and getting people involved, because if he can help 13-year-olds cut through the social awkwardness, he can help anybody.
He knows the types he’ll have to win over: “Some are shy and awkward, but with others, it’s that they’re too cool for school,” he says. At mitzvah events, the adults make up a separate audience that’s just as important to Chad as that of the teens. “My parties are for everyone. My goal is to have adults on the floor too.” So he has to have a strategy for everyone.
He uses music to set the scene and get people to interact. “You have to find a sequence of songs that will be new and cool enough to keep kids on floor, but also classic enough so adults will come out as well.” He continues: “At a typical Saturday night mitzvah, the cocktail hour is 7-8pm, so the teens are in ballroom for an hour before the adults come in. The kids of course want lots of hip hop (edited versions!), so we get all the teens on the floor with that, then as the adults enter the ballroom, my DJ will switch to ‘September’ by Earth Wind & Fire. So, for the kids, since I’ve been playing hip hop for an hour, they trust me to play music that they like. You trust me, I’ll get you later with more songs you like.” “September” helps adults get into a party mood. “That whole ‘ba de ya’ thing– they don’t have to dance right away – they just have to put their hands in the air.”
He encourages his DJs to look at the first set as a science. “If you don’t choose the music right, I don’t care how many T shirt cannons you have…” At the same time, he says, “you can’t expect too much of people right away … if you do, they won’t come to the dance floor, they’ll run away because they’re nervous.” Pacing is also important. ““It’s not always about how great the song is. You have to set the dance floor to get people comfy and then you drop the great songs.” His website has a few lists of essential party tracks.
Hopefully everyone is on the dance floor when it’s time for family introductions. If he’s still looking to break the ice, he’ll try a singalong. “I like ‘Feel this Moment’ by Christina Aguilera. I’ll move everyone as close to the stage as possible when that song comes on. People just love to sing along to that track. Sometimes, to break down barriers, I might suggest that everyone put an arm around the person next to them.”
He also likes line dances. “I’m doing a corporate event this week, my 5th year doing this event. I know them well, and after their ceremony I will play three line dances, like the cha cha slide and the wobble. Those line dances, everyone knows them, everyone will do them. You get people moving in a safe way, you get the dance floor packed. And once the dance floor is packed, you can do anything.”
When it’s time for the meal to be served, “what we’re finding more and more is that people don’t want to bring the energy level down. We announce that the meal may be coming out, but the dance floor is open.”
Any other good ways to get people interacting? “We’ll play games. The thing is that games are an icebreaker. If you can get adults to play the games, they have more fun than the kids do. Coke and Pepsi is a good one for all ages. Another trick of the trade: If we’re in the second half of the party and losing energy, I will say that someone requested a group photo with everyone in the room, don’t have to dance. Again, get people close together on the dance floor, still have background music. Take three photos. Right as final photo is being shot, I play ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, the greatest event song of all time. Now they’re on the floor, they won’t leave. They’ll sing and then we hit them with ‘Shot Through the Heart’. Eventually I bring the guest of honor up and play a classic like ‘Sweet Caroline’.”
Of course, libations can help too. “Occasionally I’ll have bartenders passing shots around to the adults!”
“You have to find nonaggressive methods to get people out on the floor and comfortable and once you do things will take off and then you can win the night.”