Have you ever been to a party that was perfectly pleasant, but never really struck an energetic chord, never really brought people out of their shell, and never really caused them to let loose? A party where you shared a glass of wine or two, grabbed a few snacks from the table, chatted with an old friend, and then had no misgivings about heading out early so you could catch an episode of your favorite show before going to bed? Of course you have. We all have—in fact, as adults with complicated, busy lives, that probably describes most parties.

Parties, particularly those that just sort of ‘come together’, have a way of ‘fizzling out’. They don’t usurp guest’s priorities in a way that makes them want to stick around more than anything else at that moment. The party isn’t ‘louder’ than the other things a guest feels responsible for in their daily lives.

Once you’re out of college, most parties aren’t able to drown out the nagging feeling that the dishwasher still needs to be emptied back at home. And, while this is easily true of a Sunday-evening party you’ve been planning for the last two weeks, it’s also (and unfortunately) frequently true of the wedding you’ve been planning for a year and a half. If your casual weekend party with friends fizzles out early, you’d probably feel a little disappointed. If you’re huge wedding celebration that you’ve put an incredible amount of time and money into fizzles out… well, you might need a few months to stop feeling upset when you think about it.

So, today, lets talk about some of the ways you can hack the wedding reception that helps create a ‘flow’ that keeps your guests engaged (and the dishwasher off their mind, hopefully).

Afternoon vs Evening Wedding Receptions

First of all, something you need to know (and surely have already read about if you’re planning an afternoon wedding reception), is that afternoon and evening wedding receptions come with different kinds of energy. As do Friday weddings, Saturday weddings and Sunday weddings. Guests at a Friday wedding often already spent the day at work; they show up tired. And guests at a Sunday wedding are starting to think about how their going to feel on Monday morning. (This is why Saturday is a favorite for wedding celebrations.)

But the time of day is probably the most important. No matter what you do, or what day of the week you have your wedding on, an afternoon wedding reception is probably not going to have that big-party kind of energy some people really want. Sure, opening a dance floor at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon is going to see a few people cutting loose, but most are going to sip their cocktails on the sidelines, or walk around the venue grounds enjoying the scenery and afternoon air. If that’s what you want, then perfect. If it’s not what you want, adjusting your timing is probably your best option.

It’s very challenging to run against the grain of people’s unconscious expectations for how they will think and feel and behave at a given time of day. Most of us don’t really let loose before the sun goes down, and certainly not if we have responsibilities looming. Planning a rager in the middle of the day is an uphill battle, as is throwing comparatively peaceful cocktail party late on a Saturday night. So, the best bet is usually to lean into these kinds of unconscious expectations, and plan something that feels like it fits and expands on your guest’s inclinations for that sort of timeframe.

If you’re having a 1pm wedding at a beautiful vineyard, don’t try to corral people onto an energetic dance floor, instead maybe offer them a cocktail celebration that’s rich with variety and interesting experiences. And likewise, if your guests hit the reception hall at 9pm, don’t ask them to sit and chat quietly with the other people at their table to a backdrop of sexy lounge music, while their flush with energy and excitement.

A Club DJ

While I do not intend to throw shade at my colleagues who DJ weddings, the truth is that there are “wedding DJ’s”, and then there are just “DJs”. The latter are the kind you find in night clubs and energetic party atmospheres. They are masters of reading a room and directing the flow of energy where it needs to go to keep ratcheting up the party. They’re also the kinds of DJ’s who aren’t going to let you tell them exactly what to do, save perhaps for a “do not play list”, and maybe a couple of “must plays”.

Yes, there are a lot of virtues to the ‘wedding DJ’, but ‘hacking the reception’ isn’t typically one of them. A wedding DJ keeps the reception timeline on track. They make sure the proper songs are played at the intended time. They tip their hat to different generations. They’ll play some classics, and you’ll see an older generation spend a few minutes on the dance floor. Then they’ll play a few hits and your peers will get up and dance around. Then they might switch over to a line-dance type song and you’ll get a generational mix. It’s all perfectly fine, but depending on the mix of ages, tastes and styles, the energy will be kind of hit or miss.

A club DJ on the other hand, might just play 40 seconds of a modern hit song, pulling all your peers out onto the dance floor, and then live-mix a mashup of a classic song with a modern dance hit and suddenly you’ve got uncle John and your 16 year old niece both going nuts on the dance floor. And the club DJ keeps them there, because they’re all about the energy and are a lot less concerned with the exact timing of anything.

If you want to hack the wedding reception so that regardless of when it ends, everyone kind of wishes it would keep going, then you probably want to steer clear of a “wedding DJ”. Now, I’m not saying a wedding DJ never gets these results, I’m saying that when they do, it’s often a lucky mix of the right people at the right time—two things that are mostly guess work when you’re planning. So ask yourself, how important it is that the father-daughter dance happen right at 8:30pm, as opposed to 8:15 or 8:45, or whenever the DJ senses the ‘energy’ in the room is safe from fizzling out. Club DJ’s are very good at hacking the energy and building on its momentum. Wedding DJ’s on the other hand, are a little more like event coordinators, helping to make sure things happen when they’re “supposed to”.

Pragmatism vs ‘The Show’

So, lets talk about the pragmatics versus ‘the show’ of this whole thing. In this case ‘the show’ is what keeps your guests engaged and excited and involved. The ‘pragmatics’ are the things you just want to do and how you want to get them done; they’re your planned events like a first dance or a cake cutting. Hacking the reception means making these two meet in the middle so that people are as engaged in the show as they are in the pragmatics.  But how do you do that?

Well, the short answer is you guess, then make a plan as best you can, and then be ready to change it at a moments notice, if your DJ thinks you should.

When is the best time for the first dance? Or the Father-Daughter dance? A lot of people put them immediately after the wedding party introductions. This is a good plan, pragmatically speaking; it gets it out of the way early and lets you put it out of your mind. It also means guests will be sitting at their tables waiting for you to be done so they can visit the bar again before dinner is served. If you just want to get it out of the way, and your guests aren’t going to be really engaged with it, why do it at all? Instead, you could use the first dance to direct attention to the dance floor after dinner, and then let your DJ redirect that attention into something your guests can personally engage with; “Paul & Julia would like to invite you to join them on the dance floor”, as a thick bass line starts to overtake your touching first-dance version of “The Way You Look Tonight”.

The point here, as with the last point, is that hacking the reception is a combination of guesswork and skill (on the part of your DJ). If you want your reception to keep going, and to leave people wanting more (the best way to create fond memories), then it’s a good idea not to act out of convenience for the schedule, but out of yours and your DJ’s best guesses about how to maintain energy and engagement.

When you cut the cake

Just as with getting people to get up and get on the dance floor, when you decide to cut the cake comes with some interesting expectations that weigh heavily on your wedding reception. The fact of the matter is, for most people—at least people over 30—the cutting of the cake signals the end of the main event. After the cake is cut, people will start to leave. It’ll start with grandparents, then slowly move down through the generations until you look around and suddenly realize the wedding is over.

This is what wedding receptions look like when they fizzle out, and probably 8 out of 10 times, it’s a direct result of the cake being cut too early. The fizzling out might be fine, except as the bride and groom, the fizzle actually takes your attention away from the party that’s still hobbling along.

After the cake is cut, Aunt Elsie comes and says she has to go and you chat for a few minutes. She gives you a big hug and heads off. Then you turn to go back to the dance floor, and are met by a work colleague who wants to wish you well, and you talk for a few minutes, and they head out. Meanwhile, another uncle who hasn’t seen you on the dance floor in a while is starting to think about what he has to do tomorrow, and he decides it’s time to go and again, you get intercepted on the way to the dance floor. It’ll continue this way for some time. The fizzle is distracting, and the fizzle begets more fizzle.

If you want to hack the wedding reception and keep people engaged, you have to be able to stay engaged yourself. That means you don’t want to send any unconscious signals that this thing is over. If you want guests to stick around and keep partying, put off the cake cutting until the last hour or less. Or, do it unceremoniously so there’s a smooth transition from dinner to party to dessert and back to party.

Unceremonious Bonus

Finally, speaking of unceremoniously cutting the cake, you can do almost everything ‘unceremoniously’, and believe it or not, as long as you’ve got a killer DJ, your guests will adapt just fine.

For example, if you’re planning to do a garter or bouquet toss, you don’t have to stop everything to make that happen. In fact, nobody really wants you to. Instead, a good DJ can MC over an energetic song and you can slip it right in the middle of an otherwise busy dance floor. Your guests will get-it. A space on the floor will clear. Guests, eager to get back to dancing themselves, will pile around the edges of the floor and cheer through the tradition, then immediately flood back in when it’s over.

The lack of formality here might even make for some very funny memories—such as a snarky bridesmaid diving in to steal the garter from a groomsman. What you’ll give up in the ‘ceremony’ of these kinds of traditions, you’ll make up for in energy and excitement, and you’ll create some very unique and memorable moments for you and your guests.

In Conclusion (For Now)

These are just a few of the things you could think about in pursuit of creating a wedding reception that feels like a blast to the last drop. There are certainly more. But all of them will have something in common—deference to the DJ’s hard-won skill, and a primary focus on your guests, and what they need to loosen up. Alcohol helps, music they like helps. But ultimately, what helps the most is keeping the ‘speed bumps’ off the road. Smooth transitions from one kind of activity to the next will make all the difference in the world, and while reception energy can’t really be planned for perfectly, you can get a decent approximation of it by being guest focused as you plan, and by working with a DJ who’s just really really good at this.