How to throw a surprise party (and not get caught)

Surprise parties are one of those great little joys in life. While I’ve never had one thrown for me, I’ve thrown a couple myself. They’re not the easiest things to do, to be certain, but they are definitely some of the most fun.

What makes a surprise party so good? If you’re the host or planner, it’s from the giddiness that forms from knowing what will happen. If you’re the guest of honour (or the victim, depending on your point of view), you get the joy of knowing that people have planned something just for you. It’s a special feeling ... or rather, I would hope that it is (not actually knowing myself).

I’m going to speak to the planners, which I assume is why you’ve come to this page. (If you think someone is planning a surprise party for you and are trying to find out if it’s true, I can offer no hints here. If they’re following these suggestions, you won’t know until it’s too late.) You’ve got a hard task ahead of you, but it is a rewarding one if it’s done right.

At all times, you need to remember who is in control: you. Everything that happens is because of you. If you lose control, don’t expect things to go off without a hitch. You can delegate, but you need to know that those you’ve delegated to are trustworthy and reliable. Otherwise, your intended surprise might end up a dud.

There are some basic rules you should follow to ensure that your party goes well and without hitches. Above all, you don’t want to get caught in making the preparations, and spill the beans to the indenting surprisee.

  1. Secrecy are the first and second words
  2. Separate and isolate communications
  3. Better to over-involve than under-involve
  4. Inform clearly and explicitly
  5. Know what’s going on at all times
  6. Be mindful of what you say
  7. Cover your tracks
  8. Make sure you have a backup plan

Secrecy are the first and second words

The first rule of the Surprise Party is: you do not talk about the Surprise Party. The second rule of the Surprise Party is: you do not talk about the Surprise Party.

You never know who’s around and don’t think for a second that the six degrees of separation is a myth. So idle chatter about a surprise party is not a wise idea. Similarly, you should always make sure that any communications you send are to specific people, be it by phone, email, or IM. Never send things by post (unless you’re certain there is no way information could leak), by fax (it’s out in the open), or leave voicemails on residential lines (especially if the intended victim lives there).

Swear everyone to secrecy. This means they cannot discuss it with anyone else except you. And ideally, unless they’re involved with the planning or execution, they shouldn’t need to. The less anyone talks, the less chance of the wrong people finding out. As the WWII saying goes: Loose lips sink ships.

Separate and isolate communications

As alluded to above, you need to make sure your communications lines are clear and isolated. This cuts down on crosstalk chatter and sidebars, which are guaranteed to cause problems.

When you talk to people, talk to them individually. This is best because you get immediate feedback, and there’s no question about whether or not they understand what is being asked of them. If you have to do discussions with a group, make sure each person acknowledges what you have said and/or asked. The last thing you need is ambiguity.

Make sure your communications are direct — never make public statements. If you have to send out invitations, make sure that they’re received in a private manner (e.g. the office, through email, talking on the phone). Never leave messages where others can see or hear them, especially if it’s the person you’re surprising.

Finally, don’t communicate unless you have to. Updates are fine, but don’t randomly send out information until you’re ready to do so. This lessens the change of leaks.

Better to over-involve than under-involve

On the flip-side of secrecy is an inadvertent foul-up due to conflicting plans. The best laid plans can go to pot in mere seconds by the actions of someone who is not privy to the surprise party. So when you’re planning, make sure that everyone within the sphere of influence knows what is going on. They don’t have to be invited, just need to know that they can’t foul things up.

Naturally, you can’t cover for everything. There are always things that you simply can’t plan for. (For that, see “Make sure you have a backup plan”.) Consider it as an 80/20 rule. You can cover 80% of all possible actions with relative ease. The remaining 20% are a lot riskier and difficult, and might not interfere with your plans, anyway.

You need a list of culprits. Some will be invited, some not. The list of invitees is up to you, but they still need to be informed:

Okay, that last one was a bit much, but you get the point.

Really consider who you’ve got on your list. Each of these people will have contact on a regular basis, and could introduce plans that could thoroughly foul up anything you’ve got going.

Family is particularly important, especially if the party does not directly involve family. Family is the single most powerful thing for some people, and is the reason why your intended guest might decline your casual invitation to spend time with their parents. So if you’re throwing a party, make sure the family knows what’s going on.

Plan big. Get as many people as you can. Sure, you can throw a small surprise party, but why bother when you can have a big one? Besides, you can get a much louder yell out of more people.

Inform clearly and explicitly

Once you’ve got your key list of people, make sure you give details. Tell them everything they need to know: time, place, reason, attire (if any specifics are desired), and who the other people are.

Make sure that you get accurate contact information for each person, and ensure that it’s secure (e.g. that no-one else might inadvertently overhear something they shouldn’t). You might have to employ one or more of your intended invitees to help out if you don’t know enough people up-front.

Don’t be vague at any time. Once you have the details, make sure they’re broadcast to everyone else. Make sure everyone else knows the details, so there’s no question. People need to make sure that they arrive at the surprise location before the unsuspecting target(s) arrive. There’s nothing worse than a surprise with only a few people.

Know what’s going on at all times

Know your details, and know them cold. Make sure you can answer any question about the party or the plans if asked, without having to refer to notes (unless it’s something esoteric). It’s a bit of work, but it’s easier when you’re running around trying to organize things.

Be mindful of what you say

In short, you have to learn to lie.

This is particularly important if you’re the one doing the planning, and the person you’re surprising is close to you (spouse, significant other, friend, family). If you want to conduct a surprise, you need to make sure you don’t tell them anything accidentally.

You also have to make sure they don’t suspect anything. This is the hard part. Humans are inquisitive by nature. If you have a look of “something’s up”, the other party will immediately suspect something. You have to be able to look someone square in the face and say: “No, honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Be able to avoid the topic. If they want to plan something for the same time that you’re planning the party, allow them to do so. This will keep them occupied and they will not expect anything than their plans. Defuse the plans as necessary by canceling reservations (while informing of the real plans), or deferring purchases as long as possible. If necessary, go to a backup plan and use some of the invitees to construct a “just in case” scenario to distract.

Cover your tracks

Never leave your plans lying around, even if you live alone. Chances are, someone will see what you’re doing, and if it’s the wrong people, it’s game over. Hide them in drawers (under locks, if needed) or in password-protected files. Delete messages once you see/hear them. Jot down only the most crucial notes.

Create distractions. This is the same technique magicians use to make a ball disappear before your eyes. Make fake plans that will keep someone on their toes. You can even create real plans designed to take the person away from what’s going on, only to bring them back to the surprise to unfold.

Make sure you have a backup plan

No plan is ever perfect. So long as you deal with humanity, you must expect something to go wrong. Be it discovery of the plans, suspicion of a surprise, a sudden illness, disappearance of the subject (hey, it’s been known to happen), or transportation failures, make sure you’ve got something in your back pocket to save the day.

Some things you can plan for. If the gig is up, and you’ve got a few hours before the surprise is planned to go off, admit to a surprise. Just not the surprise. Grab a couple of friends and set them up at a different location. Do a small surprise there. Have them all need to leave for different reasons (when in reality, they’re all going the same place you will be going), and then head to the actual surprise.

Some things you can’t. If the gig is up less than an hour away, you might pretty much be screwed. At that point, you might have to resort to the worst thing you can do: ask that they act surprised when they enter the room, if nothing else than for the benefit of everyone else.

A few suggestions

The Home Surprise Party. This is an easy one, if planned well. Ensure that a trusted person has the keys to the house or apartment. Make sure everyone arrives at least an hour ahead of schedule for decorations, etc. Make sure all cars are parked away from the home. Set a window of 10 minutes before you arrive with the subject so that no-one comes in. If you can, call ahead with a pre-defined ring (twice, and then twice again) to set a “five minute warning). Lights should be off (or in whatever expected state they should be in), and all evidence (especially shoes) should be hidden.

The Office Surprise Party.
A little more difficult, but often the most fun. Call the person away from their desk (get a manager to call them into a closed office or another floor or building) for 30 minutes. Decorate their desk, string lights and streamers, set out snacks and cake (if possible). Get the manager to walk them back to their desks such that it would be difficult for them to see what is about to happen until it’s too late. This works best in environments with actual offices or tall-walled cubicles.

The Central Location Surprise Party.
Sometimes, due to size, you’ll need to hold a surprise party at a restaurant or hotel ballroom. These are harder, since you might draw immediate attention. The trick is then to give the person a reason to have to go there. In the case of a restaurant, you can go under even the most simple reason: lunch or dinner. Make sure you have reservations for all the guests, and make sure the restaurant knows that it’s a surprise party. Ballrooms are much harder, since they have special purposes. You can play it by going to a hotel’s restaurant, and go into a different room. If it’s a community hall, say you were asked to pick something up.

Abort! Abort! Abort!

Okay, let’s face facts. This could go wrong. You might not actually succeed. There are a million things that can go wrong, and you might get to the point where you have to pull the plug and abandon the attempt.

First off, don’t panic. Secondly, don’t feel bad. And thirdly — and most importantly — don’t tell the Surprisee. EVER.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. You (or someone else) might try to surprise them again. There’s no sense in tipping off your potential victim by telling them “oh, well, we tried, but it didn’t work” — they might thing you might try again. And if you do, the surprise might not be as effective.

But most notably — I think, anyway — telling someone runs risk of actually hurting their feelings. Not for the failed effort, but because it might be something they really, really wanted. Finding out that you came close to having a wonderful surprise, but it won’t happen is … well, it’s really hard to learn, and it can be very depressing. This is not something you want your surprisee to go through.

So, yes, you may have to just suck it up. You tried, it didn’t work, and aside from those who you’d already talked to (and you should make sure they know why it’s aborted), no-one else needs to know. In the end, it’s better for all.

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