First Hand Experience of Question Difficulty

This is a follow-up to the last post – I want to expand on how the different aspects of our work fit together. (These two strands are hosted quiz nights and quiz question writing for TV shows, games, iPhone apps etc.)

Those have always been the two main areas of our business – over the years the hosted quizzes have taken the lead, certainly they’ve been more consistent. The question writing side obviously depends a little more on what comes along. I mean, we’re always writing questions, but we’re not always working on a major commission – more like bits and bobs here and there.

In the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of really good question writing work, so much so that there has been less time for our main question writers to run quizzes.

Yet, the experience of hosting quizzes is vital, I think, to our writing questions successfully.

I’ve run over 400 quizzes for people all over this country and occasionally overseas, for people of all ages, in different industries, for different purposes. I’ve asked questions on every topic that makes a good quiz question and a few that don’t.

And I get to see, first hand, how those questions go down. I get to see what people know and don’t know, what they’re proud to know and what they don’t care about knowing, what’s workoutable and what’s not.

And because our quizzes are for different clients, we get to re-use questions, so we know whether a response, positive or negative, is a one-off or not.

And that’s just me – between us, as a company, we’ve run over 3000 quizzes, and we ask our clients and our quiz masters to feed back on every event. So, we know very well if a question is a big hit or not.

This gives us a vital edge when it comes to question writing for TV, we think. To us, calibration, alongside entertainment, is more than guesswork. We have evidence to back up the fact that we know how to set quizzes, to write questions that people want to participate in and puzzle over.

It’s not just the hosted quizzes, either. There’s also the Friday Quiz, which started in 2008 and now goes out to thousands of people a week. Every week, I look at how people have done, how many people have bothered trying to answer each question, how many have got it right. This is vital information to understanding what people do and don’t know.

Anyone can reasonably think they’re an expert in quizzes, anyone who writes questions, participates in a lot, watches a lot, but we think our combined experience puts us in a privileged position. You’re left with egg on your face if you think you always know exactly how a question is going to be answered, but the numbers work themselves out.

We see hundreds, if not thousands, of people answering our questions. Most question writers only ever see one or two people answering questions they write, so they get very skewed calibration feedback.

We tell our quiz masters, when they run quizzes, that the right level involves the worst team not slipping much below 50% and the best team not getting above 90% – an ideal spread is between about 60% and 85%. And that’s what happens. Almost every time.

It’s not a naturally easy thing – the first round I ever set, which I was terribly proud of, the scores ranged between 6 and 11 out of 20. It was a disaster. The questions, in and of themselves, were mainly interesting enough, but they were all at the harder end of the scale, some of them weren’t possible to work out. Despite my love for quizzes and my concern for getting it right, I didn’t yet have the first-hand experience of getting the overall level right.

So, this is what we do. We host quizzes and we write questions. They feed into each other. Every question I’ve ever written and every question I’ve ever asked and seen answered feeds into how I write now.

Creativity

Creativity – perhaps as overused and meaningless a term these days as “interactive”, “passionate” or “110%”. I remember, for one of the first big question-writing projects I worked on for QuizQuizQuiz, shuffling with my colleague into the imposing offices of a large multinational firm who was our client, and being introduced to the various serious and important people there as “the creative” … I’m the creative, am I? If only I’d known …

It can vary how much creativity this job involves. If I read in the news that Leicester City have won the Premier League (I know, a ridiculous thought, but just as an example …), and then write the question “Who won the English Premier League in 2015-16?”, I accept that is not the very height of creative endeavour. Plenty of question writing is like that. You see simple facts and you package them into questions. In particular, this is the case with high-volume multiple choice, multi-level question writing, against a deadline.

We’ve had to write 20,000 Multiple Choice questions from scratch in a couple of months, with a very tight word limit on each question. There is not much room for anything but the barest form of creativity. But it’s still possible to get some satisfaction and show a little flair, usually in wrong answer options on easy questions. I think my favourite was “What follows this line in the Meredith Brooks song ‘Bitch?’ – “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover …”? to which one of the options was “My name’s Mitch, I’m your brother” … Well, you get your fun where you can.

Thus a lot of writing feels just as much reactive as creative. You take something that already exists and just reshape it. I try very hard not to use other people’s quiz questions. I’ve written before about how I get a certain bittersweet tang from seeing a really fine quiz question, knowing that it is not something that I will have the opportunity to think of myself. Indeed, I can’t use it. But I think it is acceptable to bank the facts in the question, and reshape it, a little while later, into something a bit different. If you couldn’t create quiz material from the same sources that other people create it  from, well, we’d all be done for.

We’ve been doing quite a lot of writing for TV in the last few years, and that certainly has plenty of scope for a satisfying creative process, be it trying to put together Hives for Hive Minds,  Only Connect sequences and connections (after 11 series, I sometimes think it’s amazing that we and the other writers are still able to come up with new material and, believe me, this requires digging deep into the well of resourcefulness and creativity) or, on The Code, nice sets of 3 answer/questions. We threw a few Easter eggs into The Code, little rhyming sequences or phrases, I spent a lot of time coming up with little nuggets of joy which only a few people spotted, but that’s part of the fun of it.

A huge amount of work can go into things which are still, at the end of the day, only quiz questions or quiz rounds. They’re not going to win any awards. But there is sometimes, dare I say it, a little of the rigour and discipline of poetry in writing a quiz round.

At our pub quiz, we used to have a round called Follow On (where each answer has one letter more than the previous) and another round called Blitz (30 quickfire questions, some of which were themed). For Christmas, we decided to write a Christmas-themed 30 question round where each answer was one letter longer than the previous answer, from 1 to 30. Frankly, I still consider it my finest hour … well, not hour, actually, but a week of writing … and five minutes of participation.

So, creativity, yes, I suppose this is a creative job. There have been many times down the years when we’ve had the opportunity to use a bit of imagination in our work. Anyone writing or running a quiz can mix it up, try new formats, be clever without being confusing. It should never become boring or a chore. We’re passionate about giving 110% to interactive, creative quizzery …

Too Easy/Too Hard

I recently recalled the first round of quiz questions that I ever set for QuizQuizQuiz.

It was March 2006, I’d been given a job with the company, I was full of myself and raring to go. I’d already run a couple of quiz nights, which I hadn’t written the questions for. I’d been given some rounds to write for our two weekly pub quizzes (now dormant) in Putney and Hammersmith.

I wrote various questions for various rounds and was assigned the 20 question Jackpot rounds for both quizzes. Excited to see how they went down, I was at the Fox in Putney on Monday night, not as quiz master, but as marker.

I had form with this quiz. In fact, I’d participated in it very successfully for several months – that’s how I got the job. It was a very high standard quiz and the jackpot round was, deliberately, the hardest round. Teams had to score a minimum of 17/20 to have a chance of the money. I knew the target audience, I knew how to pitch it, I thought.

Now, bear in mind, as someone who loved quiz nights, this was my blank slate. They often say about first and second albums that the first is full of the songs the artist has been perfecting their whole life, while the second is something they only have a few stolen months to write. Well, this was my first album, these were my questions, the best I had.

9/20 was the highest score. The quiz had been, as every week, buzzing at the usual expertise of the QuizQuizQuiz quiz master, it was at fever pitch for the culmination, the jackpot round. And my round killed it stone dead. Puzzled looks and shrugs, shouts of “it’s too hard”, “I don’t get it”. I was a little bit crushed.

I’m just looking at the round now on our database. Any gems? A couple, but yes it’s far far too hard, and there are quite a few ambiguous questions – the subject matter is a showy-offy display of my own interests – Scottish indie pop, linguistics, philosophers, 60s athletics and rock music, Medieval history, Art pranksters, ancient Greek, 90s comedy, old radio adverts, Pubs and Beer, African politics, cricket-playing Irish playwrights. I didn’t realise the extent to which my history was not shared history.

I should have, I had no excuse. I’d been to the quiz night for months. But I got it totally wrong.

I still get it wrong occasionally. I ran a corporate quiz with entirely new questions last month and slightly misjudged the first round so that scores ranged from 5 to 9 out of 12 rather than a preferred 7 to 11. I quickly adjusted the difficulty for the rest of the quiz.

Judging the difficulty of quizzes is something anyone can get wrong. People’s gauge is based on what they themselves know and don’t know. To some quiz masters, difficulty may not be that important if they think the questions are interesting enough, but it ought to be.

After 10 years of doing this, we’re now very good at gauging difficulty. We’ve seen 10s of 1000s of questions, we get statistics on how well they’re answered. We’ve turned it into a little bit of science.

It’s still not perfect, as the example of my recent opening quiz round shows. I thought the crowd would know a little more than they did. They were untested questions. But such instances of small misjudgement are pretty rare.

Despite the misadventure of the first round I ever set, I now have a confidence bordering on bullishness in the suitability of my quiz rounds. I have not written a round since where the highest score was less than 50% (well, not without intention and very good reason!)

 

Water Displacement

Just a very brief blog about one insignificant question, but hopefully a little insight into the thought processes of someone trying to constantly come up with good quiz questions.

There’s a squeaky door in my house. That’s where I got the idea for this. I remembered, as the door squeaked, that I wrote a question about four years ago asking “What does the WD in WD40 stand for?” The question has, to my knowledge, never been used.

For all these years, it’s sat quite near the top of the huge excel spreadsheet I keep of potential QuizQuizQuiz Friday Quiz questions, many times for my eyes to pass over it, consider it, then go “Nah, not this week”. It was in our database for Corporate Quizzes for  a couple of years but I don’t believe it was ever used. It is a question that has truly not made the grade.

Why not? Although we’re justifiably proud of the Friday Quiz and effort and thought is put into it every week, it would be untrue, I admit, to claim that every question in its seven-year history has been a top-quality thriller. There has been the odd bit of filler, and yet WD40 has never been deemed up to the job.

What’s wrong with it? It has some hallmarks of a good question. Word origin questions are usually very well received. And questions about the everyday are often very popular, questions about things which are everywhere and nowhere. Everyone uses WD40, probably very few people know what it means – the best one can hope for in that circumstance is that response of “aah, I’m surprised I didn’t know that, you learn something new everyday”. But I just don’t think it would get that response. It would get “Meh, who cares …”. I think “displacement” is somehow too dull and disconnected a word, it’s unsatisfactorily hard to work out. It would be the dampest of damp squibs. I think … many times I’ve been tempted to think I might be wrong, and that it might be a surprise hit. That’s the thing …we don’t always know. Sometimes questions we think will be great don’t work, and sometimes seemingly dull, nondescript questions get an enthusiastic response.

If I’m wrong about this one, let me know. If you’re there, going “Wow, I use WD-40 all the time and I’d never considered what it stood for. Thanks, QuizQuizQuiz. The fact that it’s so named because it was the 40th attempt to make a formula for Water Displacement is one of the great hidden gems of the quiz world”, well, more fool me.

Of course, any life the question might have had I’ve surely killed now.

Missing a trick

There’s a fine line between a tricky question and a trick question sometimes.

Some quiz masters may be happy to write trick questions, but I try to avoid them if I can. It can be a little bit of a grey area sometimes, though.

There are various negative reactions a question/round/quiz might get. Here are a few –

– this is boring
– ghastly celebrity/soap tittle-tattle
– how could we be expected to know that?
– I wasn’t even born then
– oh, how clever-clever
– this is frustratingly hard
– this is unchallengingly easy
– this is for an unfairly specific and exclusive audience which doesn’t include me
– yuk, sport
– yuk, any other subject

As a quiz master, you certainly don’t mind some kinds of “negative” reactions – you don’t mind that fizzle of “damn, you fiend, you fooled me there” or “oh, how could i have missed that, I hate myself”, but what you don’t want is “hmph, that’s silly and unfair”.

Where’s the distinction between tricky (perhaps even tricksy) and trick questions? Tricky/tricksy questions can be very satisfactory for the quiz master, create enormous joy for the teams that got them right and a wry smile from those that get them wrong.  They’re a great part of a great quiz. It can’t be helped if sometimes some players don’t realise they haven’t, as such, been fooled, they’ve just been pleasantly outwitted. What’s a nice example?

Which 1972 Olympic gold medallist’s wedding was watched on TV the next year by a global audience of 100 million people?

90% of teams will be very pleased with themselves and put Princess Anne.

When they hear that the answer is Mark Phillips (an Olympic gold medallist, unlike his former wife) most let out a a phhh, a screech of disappointment even, but enjoy the question. Every now and then, someone will say “hmmph, that’s a trick”.

But it’s not a trick. All the facts are there in the question. Princess Anne is an altogether wrong answer. She is not an Olympic gold medallist.

A “trick” question … an unfair trick? Well, I suppose I’d define it as something where you can’t really fault the thinking of the players in their answer, but they are wrong on a technicality. A carefully worded question can eliminate those technicalities.

Here’s one people might have different opinions on:

What is the only English city whose name begins with the letter H?

Hereford is the answer. But Hull is what a lot of people put. But Hull is wrong, because the city is officially called Kingston upon Hull. Fine. It’s a trick of sorts. Plenty of people would be satisfied to miss that trick, and accept the answer. But some might say “look, everyone calls it Hull, it’s a city, that’s not really fair” …

I’m inclined to agree, or at least don’t want to court that disgruntlement. So, I might make the question ‘What is the only English city whose official name begins with the letter H?’. Once I’ve got the word “official” in, I wouldn’t have sympathy for any carping.

People have different views on this. Different quiz masters are sticklers for different things. I like tricky questions, and indeed a few tricksy questions, but I try to avoid trick questions if I can.

What are Good Subjects for Quiz Questions?

I’m not particularly going to write in this post about what actually makes a good question. I’ve done that plenty of times before. This is more about how some topics might lend themselves better to quizzes than others, how sometimes people might think they want a quiz on a particular topic, but they’d be better advised to reconsider.

This is based to some extent on personal experience, what I find it easy to write about and what the groups of people I ask questions to and provide questions for respond well to. There are people who’d instinctively disagree with what I’m going to say, and there may also be people whose experience is very different from mine.

An obvious first thing to say might be that a good question subject is what the people answering are interested in. This is mostly true, to the extent that it probably shouldn’t be a completely boring turn-off. But you can still have topics that don’t work, even if the participants are knowledgeable about and interested in that subject.

A topic shouldn’t be too narrow and esoteric [when i say “shouldn’t” in this context, I don’t mean you can’t have a good question, even a good round, about absolutely anything, if it’s well written, but I’m just talking about percentages really], it shouldn’t be something that wouldn’t be of wide interest to quite a large number of people.

I’m probably trying to find a polite way to say it shouldn’t be about dry, boring topics in the world of work. I’ve written in more detail about not having work-related questions at a work quiz, but “your business” is a good start for topics that don’t make good quiz questions.

OK, I’ve got that out of the way. What about the classic subjects? Let’s go through them in terms of Trivial Pursuit pies …

Entertainment – basically this is the backbone of a lot of quizzes, and lends itself well to questions. It’s likely to be of interest, in some way, to most people, it can make good use of images and sounds, it has scope for dry facts and gossip, there are lots of records kept, awards, things which are indisputable.

Sport – up to a point the same, but you have to be careful about a) the number of people that loathe sport and no really nothing about it and b) just how wide it is, just how many sports there are. But it has so many statistics, most of which are verifiable, and lots of “trivia” attached to it. For the right audience, it lends itself very easily to question writing.

Arts and Literature – can be good, but statistics and facts are less well kept. Much of the most well known art and literature comes from a time before records were very accurately kept. Also, people tend to know less than they think they do about these subjects (watch Pointless for proof of this!). Also, they are subjects with such depth, that it’s quite hard to write entirely satisfactory questions about them – the interesting aspects of great books are not necessarily the facts and the figures, the bits that anyone might know.

History – basically good. It is unchanging, it is fact based – history is, in some ways, the very essence of quizzes. Of course, has to be well judged for the audience.

Geography – also good, but a bit more subject to change and more open to dispute when it comes to the great wide world of nature … which brings us to

Science and Nature – Now, my caveat is that this is not my natural subject, but I do find that Nature, in particular, is a difficult subject to write about. It is a subject people enjoy and are interested in, but does not lend itself to verifiable facts. Again, if you want proof, go to different reputable “Wildlife” websites, eg National Geographic and Discovery, and see whether their “average heights” “average weights” etc for various animals are the same. Species and categorys are disputable and subject to change all the time.You can be on dodgy ground writing questions about this topic.

Probably this all seems very sweeping, and does betray my natural inclinations. There is no real limit on what can make for a good quiz, if the writing is skilled enough, but my experience does tell me that some subjects are more equal than others.

Levels of Questions

This week, as most weeks, I was doing some question writing. I tend to have a few concurrent projects to work on, whether writing general stock for our hosted corporate quizzes or specifically for one special event, writing for a game we’ve been hired to provide questions for, or for a TV show.

Down the years, there have been 100s of projects and lots of different styles and target audiences for questions, which require shifts in focus and mindset. Few are more pronounced than one I experienced this week, though, when, on the same day, I went from coming up with the ideas for the fiendishly difficult BBC Quiz Show ‘Only Connect’ to writing short Buzzer questions for a quiz for Year 5 and 6 school pupils.

Every question is its own challenge to be addressed seriously, but it would be a little disingenuous to say that each question is as hard to write as the next. From germination to fruition, an ‘Only Connect’ question might well be several hours of work, might go through several stages, might need some serious research and brain power to get it just right. That  is not true of a question like “What is the capital of Spain?” which may suffice as a buzzer question for children.

Each question ought to have a home for whatever its level of complexity and/or difficulty. It is not quite true that there is no place for banal, facile questions, which is a view some quiz fans/quiz writers have. There is a place for such questions, in quiz machines, in buzzer rounds, as confidence-boosters in quizzes where teams are of a relatively low standard and no one seems all that keen on thinking very hard. In itself, such a question is obviously less satisfying to write than a beautifully constructed gem with a satisfying answer which makes people either go “Yesssss!!” or “Oh, of course. Damn” but putting together a round or sub-category which makes good use of simple questions and ends up being fair and enjoyable for its target audience is not to be sniffed at.

I find now, as I’ve always found, that my natural inclination is to write challenging but not impossible questions. That’s probably how most good question writers see it. So, if I’m charged with writing, say, 500 Multiple Choice questions for a specific project on a specific topic, equally dispersed between Easy, Medium and Hard, the chances are that, when I look back on the first 200 or so and give them a level, I’ll have written too many “Mediums” and I’ll have to consciously weight the next 300 more towards “Easy” and “Hard”.

The right levels can be hard to find sometimes. Both when writing questions for an unseen audience or when delivering a corporate pub quiz night for a particular group in front of you, you can initially find their knowledge base a little obscure and unexpected. I remember doing a quiz for young people where the first question was something like “Conkers come from which tree”? to be met by looks of what I thought was general bafflement. I really had to think on the spot about how to make this quiz work. The same group, I recall, were unusually strong on sport and recent politics.

I can’t always presume I find the level perfectly, but I’ve got pretty good at it, over 8+ years of writing questions for various groups and audiences all over the world. If someone tells me I’ve got the level of a question wrong, I might take a while to persuade, but I can be persuaded. I certainly have weaknesses. I don’t know if other question writers find this, but there are times when I really “want” the quizzers to know more about the subjects which are of particular interest  to me. I want my odd question about Tom Waits or mid-90s indie to go down well (they don’t). I want people to be led towards the correct answer on the slightly obscure classical reference (they sometimes are, hurray!)

But for the most part I’ve learnt to quell that instinct. I’m a pretty good judge of what people know, mainly through practice rather than some great underlying sixth sense, so hopefully those Year 5 pupils will have a good, fair buzzer round, and hopefully there’ll be some good questions of mine coming up on ‘Only Connect’…

Culture Clash

I’m an avid viewer of ‘University Challenge’ but there’s something that always bothers me about it. It’s obviously a difficult quiz show with subject matters which reflect academia – that’s fine. It’s what the contestants are there for and it’s what the viewers watch it for.

But what bothers me is that, in the early rounds, the once-a-show music question might be either something to do with classical music or pop music, but when it comes to the later rounds it is always, without fail unless anyone can contradict me on this, on classical music. As if they’re throwing the stupid ones a bone early on, but when it gets serious, getting on with the proper stuff. I’d much rather there was no popular music at all than that it’s quite clearly treated as something “beneath”.

I fear this is reflected in Paxman’s own attitude whenever something from the “low-culture” world enters the realm. The superciliousness which he is – often unjustly – famed for enters his voice. “How ridiculous of you to know that!” he seems to say (sometimes he doesn’t seem to say it, he just says it …). “How ridiculous that anyone bothers to know that.” The danger, for him, is that this blanket approach to the low arts can make him look a bit silly – I remember a question about Canadian singers where he took the same “what nonsense!” approach to a team identifying songs by Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain and Joni Mitchell. It doesn’t take a degree in pop music and a slavish devotion to the greatness of late 60s/early 70s singer-songwriters to know that there are vastly different degrees of “nonsense” within that question. He ended up just looking a little ignorant.

Perhaps it reflects his own tastes and cultural perspective, perhaps it’s the show’s party line. It’s a highbrow show for highbrow people, fine. That’s its USP. But, both in my professional life and my personal life,  I find the persistence of that cultural divide pretty insidious.

As a quiz master, it works both ways. First of all, to fend off any claims of hypocrisy, those who’ve ever been to a QuizQuizQuiz quiz might know we often include a round called Culture Clash where, yes, we differentiate between “High” and “Low” Culture. We say there’s something for everyone,  a bit about books, art, and a bit about film and TV. I’d like to claim that’s a bold subversion and a lesson in breaking down the walls of elitism but, nah, it’s just a good round format where we try not to exclude anyone, where there’s an opportunity for a good range of questions.

If we do that round, we make it fair. We make it suit the crowd. It might be weighted more one way or another depending on who it’s for, but, either way, it’s generally about well-known books, well-known artists, well-known TV  shows, well-known films – interesting facts and quirky questions within that.

So it can be frustrating when the eyes roll when I say “Now a question about classical music” or, likewise, “Which TV show …”. I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing which’ll make a quiz master grit their teeth so much as the phrases “I wasn’t even born then” or “I don’t know anything about celebrities/pop music/TV”.

The thing is anything can be good and anything can, likewise, be worth knowing. Culturally speaking, if I live up to that credo, it means saying that the possibility of there being a good song by Westlife exists or the possibility of a good film by Michael Bay or a good TV show featuring Amanda Holden. It is possible, it might even already be real … might not … People might describe this as a form of (pop) cultural relativism.

Likewise, it follows that within each topic is something worth knowing. Our job as question writers is to find the thing worth knowing, or at least worth thinking about, within the topic, but the responsibility of the quizzer, as I see it, is to at least not dismiss the subject out of hand before it’s begun. I’ve seen people scorn questions about everything from sport to celebrity to politics to history to theology to pop music to TV to geography (really, I have! I mean, how do you think geography is beneath you?), and it bugs me.

Trivia’s a funny word, isn’t it? I disapprove of its use when applied to quizzes. Sometimes I tell people I write and run quizzes. “Like, trivia?” they say “No, not trivia, quizzes”. The word trivia is more persistent in America than the UK when applied to quizzes, to the business of knowing stuff in a competitive format.

But the word “trivial” is right there in both countries – that which is trifling, inessential. My “high-culture” background tells me that it’s from the Latin for where three roads meet, i.e that which is appropriate to the street corner, tittle-tattle. But whether is on high culture, low culture, celebrities, Ancient Greek architecture, sport or fashion, I think you’re missing a trick if you treat all or any of it as “trivia”, as vulgar and irrelevant to higher concerns. One day something that you learn  at a quiz may just save your life … or at least save you in an awkward social situation.

 

 

 

The younger generation

I’m almost 35. Not young anymore. Not long since I was young, but not young like the young folks anymore. This is fine. I can’t play football anymore, can’t play cricket without my whole body aching for a week, but it’s fine. It’s not the issue here.

I’m talking about quizzes here. What difference does my age make to my ability to run quizzes? Well, it depends who it’s for, doesn’t it? We run quizzes for all ages, from Primary School children to venerable pre-rock’n’roll quizzers, but the heaviest weighting is, as it has always been, the mid-to-late twenties. When I started running quizzes for QuizQuizQuiz, I was in my mid-to-late twenties. It was quite rare to be running quizzes for people significantly younger than me. This has changed.

What’s more, we run more and more quizzes for students and interns, people who are nominally adults but really are a whole generation younger than me. Can my quiz master skills cope with this?

First of all, once I hit 33 I didn’t start exclusively listening to opera, watching Ingmar Bergman films and complaining that it’s not like it was in the good old days. I still have relatively “young” tastes, if they were ever young. I’m into pop music (of a sort), modern films, watch things on TV other than ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and hang out on street corners drinking alcopops. So, in a sense, and especially as it’s my actual job, it really shouldn’t be that hard for me to know what works in a quiz for folk a few years younger than me.

But I am noting a few more challenges, as the gap gets wider year by year. I do think it’s particularly marked because there has been the most remarkably accelerated rate of change in media, communication and culture in the, say, 15 year gap between me and the intern quizzer. Just remember, when I left school, hardly anyone was using the internet (I don’t think I’d even heard of it, though I was the kind of kid who thought these computers were just a flash in the pan), there was certainly no facebook or twitter, about 10% of people had a mobile phone, most of us still had 4 (not even 5!) TV channels, Top of the Pops was still a popular show and the way to find out about what was in the charts, I could go on … some of it is trivial, some of it is pretty significant, impacting on the whole way people grow up, what they know, what they like, how they understand the world.

So, what you really want to know is, are the kids any good at quizzing? Yes, pretty good, and in some ways you don’t have to alter that much to get the tone and the content right. I haven’t yet had anyone shouting out “Hey grandad, this is so square …” or whatever the whippersnappers say these days.

There’s obviously a chance of getting it wrong by referencing something they’ve no idea about, whether it’s The Fast Show or Menswear or England putting in a decent performance at a major football tournament, but, actually, that’s pretty straightforwardly avoided if you give it enough thought beforehand. [Don’t get me wrong, it is important to avoid that, important not to think you have a shared cultural background and what you were watching/listening to when you were growing up is the slightest relevant to what’ll be fun for them]. It’s actually the opposite that is more the problem, though – in avoiding stuff that you worry may not be suitable, there may be a tendency to play it safe, make it too easy, even patronise them.

For a start, there’s certainly no particular reason why their general knowledge, geography, history, politics etc won’t be as strong as anyone else’s, or their ability to think quizzily and work out puzzling questions. Indeed, their tendency to drink a little less than the more experienced quizzer can mean their heads are a little clearer for trickier questions.

It’s when it comes to “culture” that it can be trickiest, whether that’s Video Games, TV, Films or particularly Music. Because I don’t know exactly what they know, what they’ve experienced, how they take it all in, and can only work it out approximately, there’s a real danger of asking something which just seems like the simplest, most pointless thing in the world. “Here’s a question about one of those video games you all seem to spend all your time playing.” “Yes, but what you’re asking us is like asking us what is 2+2”. It can be like that if you’re not careful.

And the same applies to pop music – I don’t just know what the big hits were of my era, I know which songs were kind-of hits, tunes you’d remember but might not be too sure who they’re by, and that’s what makes a good question. I know what old bands people my age might know about, too. It takes a fair bit of research and experience to get a music round right for younger people – will they know Frank Sinatra, the Stone Roses, will they know the Strokes, say, whose first album came out when a current university student was about 7? Yes, they know the modern chart-toppers, the songs that are everywhere, but the skill is going a little deeper.

It’s an interesting, and growing, challenge. The gap in age will continue to grow between me and the average corporate quiz participant. As a company, we’ll take on new, possibly younger, quiz masters, every now and then, and we’ll think more and more conscientiously about making sure our round formats and questions are tailored to the audience, whatever their age. Quzzing is certainly not a young man or woman’s game, so I don’t think I’ll have to hang up the spikes just yet – maybe now is a good time to take inspiration from the Rolling Stones and look forward to entertaining the kids of quiz for another four decades.

 

Levels of Questions

As something of a follow-up to my last post about Corporate and Company Quizzes, I’m going to write a little about the varying levels of difficulty you might find at different quizzes.

This is sparked by recently hearing a view from a pub quiz master that he believed that corporate quizzes are generally much harder than pub quizzes, which, I must say, is not my experience at all.

When we used to write one or two pub quizzes a week, and then use the accumulated pub quizzes as source material for our corporate quizzes, it was definitely true that the difficulty was significantly reduced from pub quiz to corporate. To be fair, this was a particularly strong pub quiz crowd. There were a high number of high quality teams, and we tailored the difficulty to reflect that.

And by and large, that’s what every quiz should do, so it would be slightly inaccurate of me to simply say “Corporate quizzes are easier than pub quizzes” – if I know that a corporate event I’m running is for a number of really good teams, I’ll up the difficulty level, and likewise, I’ve been to some really easy pub quizzes.

Generally, though, my reflection is that, because pub quiz goers are people who have gone somewhere to take part in a quiz, they tend to like quizzes and have some competence in them, whereas a corporate quiz is usually a pretty random assortment of workers who don’t necessarily have any inclination to quiz. Generally, that’s how I find it, and why, in general, pub quizzes are tougher than company quiz events.

Perhaps it’s more interesting to consider easy and difficult questions, and, to expand on that, easy and difficult quizzes, in a few different ways.

Firstly, it is, I think harder to write easy questions than to write difficult questions. To come up with a real gem of an easy question is always a great pleasure. Perhaps what I mean is it’s hardest to write easy questions that aren’t facile. “What’s the capital of Belgium?” OK, that’s not a hard question to write. “What three word phrase connects ‘Bob the Builder’ and Barack Obama?” – still very easy, but a little bit more pleasing to ask and to answer.

I’d tentatively suggest that a pub quiz may contain a few more facile questions – questions about what’s happened recently where all you need is to have read the paper to get it. That’s fine – in the context of any quiz, not everything needs be a beautifully constructed brainteaser.

Too many facile questions are, of course, a real turn-off. One can sometimes see the people that rate themselves at quizzes rolling their eyes if a question is a bit too simple. [Incidentally, a real delight then is the question that appears facile but, without being a trick, trips people up. I have a really good one of those at the moment, where I often see someone scoffing when it’s asked, then getting it wrong – “What year is 100 years after 90 BC?” Think before you join the scoffers …]

It’s not always about easy/difficult anyway, but more about suitable/not suitable to the participants. And then you can ask, which participants? All the participants, or the best, or the worst? What I find is that even very good teams rarely get over 90% in a quiz, even if it is “easy” – the easiness will mean that the less good teams’ scores will improve. A “hard” quiz is likely to mean greater separation, and, for me as a quiz master, that’s not really desirable. As I’ve said various times, I want a range between 60% and 90%. If I get close to that, I’m happy and know that I’ve done a pretty good job in question selection. If it’s 90% to 40%, less so. Then again, if it’s 90% to 80%, say, then I probably will have made the quiz too easy.

So, when should a quiz be hard? Well, rarely, I think. It is necessary, obviously, when a pub quiz has a reputation for being fiendish, of course: when difficulty is its calling card. And, for a corporate event, if we’re told they want it be tricky, well, sure, but even then, I’d use my discretion. I know that I could ask a good set of questions where no team would get more than 50% of them, and most questions would be answered by at least one of the teams…yet they’d still have a better time if I tone it down a bit and they’re getting far more of them right.

Serious quizzers like to be challenged, that’s why they watch shows like ‘University Challenge’ and ‘Only Connect’, but even then, you want to feel you’ve got a chance on the questions. When Paxman’s asked something where no one’s got a clue, it’s a bit of a damp squib.

The truth is, then, perhaps “difficulty” is a bit of a red herring – it’s about suitability of questions, quality of questions, maintaining interest, variation and and about offering a fair challenge.

Do you have a favourite “easy” question?