Lessons For DJs From Risk Management Science

Andrew Roberts
Read time: 6 mins
Last updated 27 November, 2017

Crisis handling is something that can be taught: And something that in both important and trivial circumstances, many people still get badly wrong. Pic: Different and Better

Want to know what training high-profile public figures call on to get them through the worst of times? How they deal with things when the unforeseen strike on their watch? And how you can “borrow” the same kind of training to deal with potential pitfalls when DJing? When the stakes are high, the best-prepared take no chances, so you may not be surprised to know that there are specific companies who train those in big business, high politics, and high profile civic positions to deal with the unforeseen – and that it is perfectly possible to borrow their techniques to improve your DJing performances.

Before we go any further, of course, you may ask: How do I know about all of this? Well, as well as being a DJ by night, in my “day job”, my company trains high-stake multinational companies and civic stakeholders in this exact same stuff day in, day out. It works, and it can be taught. Rudolph Guiliani, New York’s Mayor 10 years ago, handled 9/11 with compassion and conviction. But as the inept handling of many other high-profile events since shows (such as Bin Laden’s capture and the BP Gulf Of Mexico spillage), even high-profile companies and governments people still get this basis stuff wrong.

The reason it’s important for DJs is that fear paralyses, it can stop you playing in public in the first place, and furthermore, when things go wrong such training can stand you apart from those who “wing it” or are too arrogant to bother. So if you’re a DJ who’s perhaps worried about making that transition between bedroom and bar, or bar and big club, or you just want to be better prepared, let me show you how this science – the science of risk management – can help unparalyse you and aid you in making that first leap.

Using these techniques to conquer performance nerves

There’s an acknowledged strategy called APP, meaning “anticipate, prepare and practise”. This strategy is the fundamental one of risk communication, a science-based discipline that can help you, as a DJ – a communicator through sound – prevent things from going wrong. Even if it does all go wrong, it can help you to still get another booking.

When you are first starting out, you may find you are focusing too much on what might go wrong! It’s in our nature to be negative; so-called “negative dominance” plays a role in all of our lives. It’s in the media, on TV, at the cinema. When you are stressed you tend towards negative thoughts – and of course, at a big gig you may well be totally stressed out.

You may well be worried most of all about making a mistake, being blamed for a disastrous mix, an empty dancefloor…

And when things do go wrong, you may be paralysed be fear. You are gripped by mental noise. This is actually a real medical phenomenon, known as “cognitive static”. When you are stressed your brain function is impeded, and things just don’t seem to compute. It is well characterised that the human brain can generally recall around seven numbers.

Think of you phone number – it’s usually six or seven numbers for a reason. When an emergency call is required, think why most numbers around the world are just three figures. That’s because of mental noise. The techniques I can show you here can help you overcome your own mini-disasters, and help you to turn things round during a DJ set when things do go wrong.

How to anticipate, prepare and practise…

Write stuff down
To alleviate the most negative thoughts, the nightmares you see yourself being responsible for, you really need to write down, “what could go wrong”. This is the anticipation part, and you can type a list out, maybe 15 or 20 things in one column of a spreadsheet or word processor table. You probably have a good idea of fundamental things — computer crash, you fade out the wrong deck — but there may be specific events applicable to your venue or to your style.

Just listing what could going wrong alongside solutions is an effective tool in itself.

Think of as many as you can but focus on the ones that are within your control, the ones you can do something about. Some disasters may occur that you can do nothing about, so leave those out. In the next column you need to prepare for these anticipated nightmares. In a live performance, under pressure, with hundreds of dancers (or maybe just a few) looking to you, you will usually need a simple action step to turn things round.

It is these “action” steps that need to become second nature to you. Whatever your level of overall skill, your capabilities as a DJ or your track record as a performer, being an expert at recovering from a problem will show the crowd, and your employers, that you are competent, and this may be critical to extending your DJ career.

Competence builds trust
Now, you may be thinking “I want to do more than prove I am just ‘competent’,” but in the DJ marketplace, this in itself is a significant step forward.

Why is this so? Because your ability to show that you are a competent performer, able to recover from a problem under pressure, may be the only differentiator between you and the next guy waiting to take your booth place! Also, proving competence means you establish a baseline performance level, you move your capability level from the bottom rung up, and in many settings that may be enough to get you another gig.

It build trust in your ability — and in the flaky DJ world, trust is all about competence (track record and capabilities). There are creative and character traits thrown in, sure, but without that baseline trust that competence wins you, you are not going anywhere! This way – while of course you’ll still have great nights and not-so-great nights – you’ll never have a complete meltdown, a DJ crisis that the venue will long remember (as will their patrons). Planning for a set of worst case scenarios may be more important in the beginning that you first anticipate.

Being prepared as a DJ obviously also means the technical parts of knowing your music: Rehearsing your mixes, reading the crowd, and the wealth of other technical “expertise” you have amassed practising your art. As reported by Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Matthew Syed (Bounce) and other authors, it could take up to 10,000 hours to amass true expertise in a complex activity, so keep on practising!

However, as I’ve just outlined, preparation can mean much more than just DJ capability, and it is this kind of anticipation and preparation that you may overlook.

The second P in APP is “practice”, as in practising your contingencies. This is something you need to build into your routines. You may find it’s as simple as having an iPod or second laptop wired into a spare channel on your mixer, but – just like Rudy Guiliani – you should practice both the recovery action and your communication steps in order to react well if the time comes.

Leave the haters to hate, but acknowledge your mistakes
Using risk communication to anticipate and prepare for the worst is one thing, but managing concerns or mood is a huge part of being a DJ and also dealing with difficult situations. If things go wrong, there are two classic techniques to manage audience mood. First, leave the haters to hate; second, acknowledge your mistakes.

Acknowledging your mistakes is important, but ignore the haters – you can’t do anything about them.

When things go wrong, you may find a few all too willing to boo, voice their feelings and let everyone know that they disapprove. Fight the urge and don’t react to this, let it pass; acknowledge this type of behaviour and you validate it. We all make mistakes; to err is human, and most will appreciate that. What’s more, your APP training will help you recover the situation so most will not even notice, let alone care.

Second, a quick acknowledgement to the crowd can be all the difference between people realising you’re human and deserving of another chance, and bummed-out patrons upset that they have wasted a cover charge. That’s where your microphone skills will come in handy. Time to start practising those too!


APP is a sound strategy for any DJ in both planning to avoid and dealing with things when they inevitably do go wrong. Adopt the technique as a part of your normal preparation and “the worst case scenario” will no longer be on your mind to stress you out as you step into the booth.

If you think this advice to be totally obvious, you have a point: I used to think this way too. But after being involved in working and teaching people about crisis and controversy for 12 years, and witnessing many high stakes examples of people getting it wrong, I know that even the best, most organised and well financed operations can completely overlook APP. Because of this, they end up facing the consequences.

And while facing down a DJ catastrophe clearly does not involve anything like as serious as 9/11, Bin Laden or the BP oil spill, learning how to deal with it could save you embarrassment, lost trust and a potential loss of bookings – which is luckily about as bad as it gets in the DJ world.

• Andrew Roberts aka “The Doc” is a Bangkok-based brand strategist, and founder of The Center for Risk Communication (offices in Singapore, Santiago, New York, Birmingham, Melbourne) by day. By night, he is a digital DJ in Bangkok’s pubs and clubs. Here’s his website.

Do you bring skills to your DJing from your day job? How do you prepare for the unforeseen in your DJ sets? Have you ever seen DJs completely total it and not recover? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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