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.

Questions about Ed Balls

When a blog falls silent, it’s usually either a good or bad sign. Thankfully, in this case, it’s the former. We’ve been BusyBusyBusy rather than QuietQuietQuiet (sorry, that’s terrible …).

I’ve been writing, rather than hosting, a lot – almost exclusively. in fact. This blog has had three main purposes since it began – 1. (being honest) to help bring traffic to our website 2. to provide specific information on our quiz nights for our clients and 3. to just be informative and a bit of fun while being a bit of an authority on all things quiz.

A lot of my posts over the last few years have been about the joys and pitfalls of running quiz nights, and, as I say, they’ve served as places to point a client about the way our quizzes work. Until last week, though, I hadn’t run a quiz for about 9 months, so I just didn’t feel inspired to be writing all that much about quiz nights (as well as the fact I’ve written over 100 previous posts and I’d run the risk of repeating myself).

The writing work has been good – interesting, creative, exactly the kind of work we want to be doing. For me, it’s also often quite solitary, and a world away from the quiz nights. The atmosphere at quiz nights varies, but they do very often turn into loud and raucous mass participation events, which appear to be barely on the edge of control (though in reality we are always in control!). The best ones do, anyway.

For the last year, though, I’ve more often been in my special sound-proof QuizQuizQuiz shed trying to construct quiz questions/rounds/shows as if they’re haikus hewn from the very core of language and knowledge. Who knows, maybe sometimes they are …

Anyway, what’s my point? (I’m out of practice at writing blogs with a point.) Just that it’s a big quiz world and getting bigger. Gosh, some of those quizzers are turning into rock stars, as this rather good  documentary claimed. Even our own director, Jack, has been on the radio talking about the whole quiz thing (among other things) on ‘The Museum of Curiosity‘. It’s a broad church.

For me, as a quiz writer, the essence is now boiled down to knowing what people know. I’m good at that now. Whichever people, in whatever setting, whether online, on a TV show, in a room, in a pub, that’s a skill I’ve got. It’s far from faultless, though. There’s as much joy in someone unexpectedly knowing something you thought would stump them, as there is despair in people using neither knowledge nor knowhow, and failing miserably when you least expect it.

Quizzes should always reward knowledge and knowhow – it’s a bit of a shame when people apply good reasoning to a question and still get it wrong. That applies to any quiz situation.

For some reason, this year, I’ve written a lot of questions, often in completely different contexts, about Ed Balls. Currently no man alive lends themselves better to slightly comical quiz questions. Thank you Ed Balls. And as my own little tribute to Ed Balls Day … Ed Balls.

I ran a quiz last week – a big old quiz for 200 people in a bar in London – an old routine I’d fallen out of but thankfully fell back into pretty quickly. My joy for the last year has been applying a fair bit of science and a little bit of art to question writing, initially on my own, then in close, limited collaboration. However, last week I remembered the joy of playing ‘Sound of da Police’ at high volume to a room full of tipsy but fiercely competitive business-folk, and, of course, I remembered the age-old rush of saying “And the year when they were all Number 1 is Nineteen …. ninety ……………. nine”

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’…

Testing Testing

As a QuizQuizQuiz Quiz Master and main Question Writer, all aspects of my job require testing things to see if they’re at the right level.

Of course, I do a sound check before every quiz. This is just as important when using our own portable equipment as when plugging into a venue’s own AV system, though the challenges are slightly different.

With our own  system, the challenge is placing the speakers so that everyone can hear properly with no one being blasted with noise, making sure there’s no feedback, that my voice sounds clear and crisp etc. Some rooms we turn up at can provide more of a challenge than others.

With a venue’s own AV system, whether in a pub, a hotel or a conference room in a company’s offices, it ought to be simpler, but there are pitfalls to avoid. The system should have been perfectly set up to suit the room, and often it is. Often it really is a case of plug in, play a little music, say a word or two, yes, this’ll be perfect. But as a quiz master, we’re very aware of how much more volume is required in a room full of 100 people than an empty room; aware of it in a way that sometimes a venue’s own AV specialist isn’t. Often, one has to politely suggest “I think I’ll need a little more than that on the mic” and be told “No, no, this is fine” when I know full well that as the hum of 100 people chatting and cheering and drinking grows, I really do need a little more on the mic.

Likewise, every now and then, a conference room’s sound may sound fine and clear at mid-volume, but may begin to struggle at a slightly higher volume –  a bit of hiss, a bit of crackle. Experience has taught me the importance of a rigorous test – or as rigorous a test as possible.

Likewise, testing is important for a question writer. We update the database for our corporate events regularly, write 100s and 100s of new questions a year, and we want these questions not just to be ok, decent, forgettable questions, we want them to be great, memorable questions. I have a  pretty good idea when I’ve written a question if it’s a cracker or not, but, in many cases, questions I think will be surefire hits get a muted response if not quite used right, while seemingly innocuous ones bring the house down.

So, we ask all our quiz masters to provide us with feedback on new questions they’ve used when we send out new questions. We’re always swapping ideas and thoughts on how a question has gone down or can be slightly improved – we all want every question we run to be a bit better than the last one we ran.

And, finally, in my capacity as the writer of our multiple choice questions, getting the right level is of paramount importance. Often, because of budget and timing, that testing has to be internal. If I’ve written 5,000 questions for a game, all of which  require a difficulty level, I (and the client) must rely on my own experience, my own hard-earned sense of what people know and what they don’t. I’m pretty good at it. As well as me, there’ll always be at least one other experienced question writer, editing and checking my questions, and if they  feel I’ve mislevelled a question, they’ll let me know.

Sometimes, if the budget’s higher, if the questions are more specialised, we can build a thorough question test into our schedule. You may know we’ve done that recently, with a game we’ve written and which we’re rather excited about. Because of the nature of the game, it was important to test the difficulty ramping.

And, we’re lucky, we’ve got a ready-made focus group, our Friday Quiz mailing list, who we think we’ve got a pretty good relationship with and who, frankly, enjoy a bit of a quiz. So we put a message out for anyone who wanted to help us testing and got a big response. It was hugely helpful to test how quizzers responded to all the questions in the game and will hopefully improve it for the wider audience we hope it finds.

Of course, part of the  experience of surveys and testing is not to blindly accept what basic statistics tell you. Above all, at QuizQuizQuiz,  we trust our own experience. We think we know what makes a good quiz question, a well-balanced round, a fair subject matter. Whenever that confidence is put to the test, we’re happy to see it confirmed (or not – and we learn from it!)

The First Quiz Night

It’s eight years, almost to the day, since the first QuizQuizQuiz quiz night I helped at. I’d just been told that I’d got the job as the company’s first full time employee (who was not also a founder). Though I’d been interviewed by all the founders, my more important application process was undoubtedly the months I’d been attending the Fox pub quiz in Putney, run by Jack Waley-Cohen, at which I had an ideal opportunity to display my aptitude for the quiz game.

I recall the first quiz night at which I was a quiz assistant: I was helping company director and founder David Brewis in a swish bar near Aldgate, and I took delight in being able to comfortably mark the 13 teams in the short time it took him to read out the answers to each round.

Shortly afterwards, I helped at another event in the grimy upstairs room of a city pub (at QQQ, you get used to working in all kinds of venues) and then I was deemed ready to run my first quiz.

I was not computer illiterate, not quite, but certainly computer ill-adjusted. Though I’d had a bit of time to practice with the technology that we use at our quizzes, it would, sensibly, be a while before I was set free to run a quiz in its entirety – setting up the equipment, playing the music, the video etc.

So I had two helpers for my first quiz – founder-director, Lesley-Anne Brewis, and one of the early investors, James Brilliant (yes, that is his actual name). I was naturally a little nervous, and my nerves weren’t helped by arriving  at the Leadenhall Market (I think it was Leadenhall, it was definitely one of the Markets) nice and early to find that not only was our client not there yet, but the venue wasn’t open, and showed no signs of being so.

After a good few minutes standing outside, everyone necessary (bar staff, quiz helpers and quiz participants) turned up, and we set up, and got ready to go.

I’m not going to pretend it was perfect! I remember just before starting I got it into my head that I would conduct the quiz sitting down, and only Lesley’s frantic whispering to remind me of the first rule of QuizMaster club raised me to my feet.  I also remember, about an hour in, realising that I hadn’t plugged my laptop in and it was rapidly running out of gas. Neither of those are mistakes I have made in the ensuing 8 years.

I don’t remember much else of that night, except that they enjoyed it and clapped at the end, and I was pleased with myself, but still not sure.

By the second one, at a North London school, I was getting into my stride. I had banter, jokes, a bit more fluency, and I knew after that one that I could definitely be good at this.

As is our policy at QuizQuizQuiz, we don’t throw quiz masters in at the deep end. The full process of question selection and multimedia management came gradually over the next few weeks.

The first quiz I was let loose on as a full multimedia extravaganza with no “handholder” was a blazingly hot May day in a hot room at a media company near Euston. It was all a bit random and off-the-cuff, I think I set a speaker up on a pool table and ended up having to start about an hour late because of all sorts of other activities going on.

I think I was too nervous to ask for a glass of water and I did the whole thing, sweating like the whole room, on adrenaline. It went exceptionally well. I got to the allotted finish time and asked if they fancied another round – they shouted their approval. I ended up running three extra rounds and, though it was still early evening the atmosphere was one of drunken delight.

That’s when I realised how much fun it was to be a quiz master, when you and everyone in attendance is of the same mind to have a jolly good time.

At QuizQuizQuiz, we give a guarantee of professionalism and quality. We stand up, we plug our laptops in, and we do all sorts of rather more sophisticated things as we strive to give our absolute best to ensure everyone has a good time. Of course the participating teams play a massive part in that two. That same Euston company taught me that. I was invited back to run the quiz for them a year later, and really looked forward to it.

As I waited for the start of the quiz with that same crowd the next year my host told me “Bit of a strange atmosphere here today, sorry, there’s been a few redundancies …” Aah, ok. Did that affect the atmosphere of the quiz? Yes, of course. Where there’d been delighted shouting the year before, this year there was more restraint and, dare I say it, strain.

I remember raising my game as best I could – I’d improved a lot as a quiz master in the year gone by, and by the end, that atmosphere was great.

Since then, I’ve run 100s of quizzes for different groups in different venues, with different vibes and different purposes. I’ve asked 1000s of questions, I’ve written 10s of 1000s of questions, I’ve even worked out how to use a computer … a bit. This is still my job because I love doing it, as we all do. So, I look back on those first quiz nights, nerves and mistakes and all, with great fondness.

Common Quiz Night Complications Part 1

Here begins a shorter series of posts (at least I hope they’re short, brevity is not always my strong point) about the suggestions our client sometimes have which, though they may be imaginative and well-intentioned, are more likely to have a detrimental affect on the quiz than positive.

It’s probably safe to say that our default position on such suggestions is sceptical and in need of clear persuasion and a reason why it’s either better than the quiz would otherwise be or intrinsic to the purpose of the evening.

The latter is important. Sometimes a client might suggest something we think is overcomplicated and potentially fraught, like, say, swapping team members, and we’ll have strong doubts. If we then discover that the purpose of the conference they’re at is to do with, say, working with different people in different contexts, we understand and make that concept work, either in its current form or by suggesting something that fulfils their aims even better, and that we know will work.

We know that people have the best intentions for their quiz and that sometimes there is an agenda beyond just having a great quiz, be it team building or raising money. So we do listen; we just have experience of the fact that not every idea is a good one, and we have a very good nose for when this is the case.

So, what first?


A common one, and often a pretty reasonable one. “We’ve got a pirate theme”. “It’s a sports quiz”. “We want people to think about speed and buildings”. “The concept is atonement …” All but the last one are real … that would be a heavy quiz.

So, ok, you’ve got a theme, but be careful with it. Let’s take an example. If your theme, for whatever reason, is the London Underground, do you want every question to be about the Underground, do you want the Quiz Master dressed in a tube driver’s uniform (don’t go there!)? Are you sure? Does everyone taking part love and know a lot about the tube? How about something simpler, like naming teams after tube lines, and a few questions here and there about the tube.

Which tube line has the most stations south of the River Thames?, for example.

The same applies to almost anything, Don’t let the theme overwhelm the quiz. It could be a dud. We’re a little wary about even having a single round on one subject – we don’t really do a Food round, a Geography round, a History round etc and have written at length about caution at using a Sport round.

So, even a Sport, Film or Book quiz, large themes though they are, is in danger of being a bit monochrome, a bit weighted and unfair.

Around this time of year and in the next month or so, there’ll be a fair few Halloween or Christmas quizzes for us, which is great, but we’d try to avoid the whole quiz being about those subjects, and it requires a fair bit of thought in the question writing to come up with fair, fun and interesting questions throughout.

So, themes. Be careful with them. The biggest issues are that themes can be exclusive, overwhelming and forced. They can certainly make an evening more fun but not, I think, if the theme is bigger than the quiz.



Having thoroughly flogged the cricket/quizzing analogy in my last post, I’ll now delve deeper into the world of ill-considered comparisons by drawing a few parallels between the “art” of quiz and that of pop music.

Right now, I don’t know how far I’m going to take this. The chances are I’ll take it too far.

What got me started was thinking about whether a quiz is automatically better if the quizmaster has written their own questions. You can see where this is going already, I imagine …

We music snobs (I am one, or perhaps am a recovering one, a lapsed snob, a snob manqué – perhaps you are not) we scowl at these manufactured pop acts and cry “They don’t even write their own songs!” Like Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Martha and the Vandellas – well, such snobbishness already seems a little silly.

But I do love a good singer-songwriter, a musical auteur, whether it’s Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z or David Bowie. I like it when they do it all themselves. What’s a good equivalent term for the singer-songwriter? The quizzer-quizmaster, the master-quizwriter? The quizmaster-quizwriter?

There are various models to follow. Here at QuizQuizQuiz, we have a core question-writing team and we have several trained, skilled quizmasters who, even if they have not written the questions themselves, know our database inside out, can question it, adapt, create their own quizzes out of the questions that already exist. They make the quizzes and the questions their own.

Why not extend the analogy to the point of absurdity? If QuizQuizQuiz is Hitsville USA (the home of Tamla-Motown) there is room for the Temptations, for Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Four Tops, master interpreters, and there are the writers who also perform, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, say. This is the point where I compare myself to Smokey Robinson… oh dear.

Likewise, there’s a very good pub quiz company based in London, whose nights are of a reliably strong standard, where the questions are mainly written by one person and who brings in quizmasters particularly suited to the task. So, perhaps he is Phil Spector and they are his Ronettes and his Crystals …

And then, there are some big pub quiz companies who write excellent quizzes and send them to 100s and 100s of pubs along a formula, and occasionally less care is taken that the quizmaster is in full control of their material, they can quite often just be whoever is available to read out the sheet on the night.

I can’t decide if an apt comparison is just a dodgy covers band or, yet more cruelly, the Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory of the late 80s. Don’t get me wrong, there may be the odd gem uncovered (let us say Kylie or, if you will, Rick Astley) but there’ll be a few Reynolds Girls or, dare I say it, Sonias …

Anyway, I’ve probably lost you by now. I just wanted to mention the Reynolds Girls. They’d rather Jack than Fleetwood Mac. A lot of people might prefer the good old-fashioned master-quizwriter, who writes and performs all his/her own material. Maybe there aren’t always that many bells and whistles, but there are clever solid questions, moments of genius, and it’s got integrity.

Who’s the Bob Dylan of the quizzing world, I wonder? And who’s the Woody Guthrie? Who’s the James Brown and who’s the Madonna? And who are the innovators, the ones who used technology to take it to a new level? Who’s Public Enemy and who is Kraftwerk? But who’s the Chico? The Nickelback?

Anyway, what’s my point? I suppose that it’s really important for a quizmaster to know exactly what they’re asking, that the question means something to them, that they ask it with purpose and understanding.

We’ve all seen kids on the X-Factor who, even if they’re technically proficient, haven’t the slightest relationship with the words they’re singing. And it’s horrendous.

But you don’t have to have written the questions to take ownership of them. Some of my favourite questions in our database are questions I haven’t written, some are questions I can’t remember if I’ve written or not. But they feel like mine now, and that’s what matters.


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.


In Defence of Quiz

A quiz master should never be defensive, of course. In particular a QuizQuizQuiz QuizMaster who is trained and paid specifically for the skill to convert even the most fervently anti-quiz, to be inclusive and thoughtful and not make anyone feel like they’re stupid or too young or too old or not from the right place to enjoy the fun.

Sometimes, though, as part of the quizzing community, when one comes across certain expressions of contempt for the whole quizzle bizzle, one feels it reasonable to speak up a little.

“Who cares?”

Well, that depends. If no one cares, that’s obviously the quiz master/question setter’s fault. If hardly anyone cares, likewise. One shouldn’t ask questions that are so esoteric as to exclude all but the quizziest of quizzers.

But quizzes are a participatory, collaborational competition. If you’re in it, you’ll enjoy it more if you engage with it. If you don’t know an answer, well, someone else might, and even if you don’t know an answer, you might be able to provide a bit of information which will help someone else get the answer.

So, if a question is asked, and a fair proportion of the intended audience care enough about the answer, then that is a fair and reasonable question to ask and “Who cares?” is not necessarily a fair and reasonable question to ask …

“I wasn’t even born then”/”I’m not interested in modern celebrities/pop music”

Ever hear that one? A part of me understands and sympathizes. If excluded from the generational “sweet spot” of the quiz audience, and if a quiz is overly geared towards popular culture fans who grew up in the 70s and 80s, then you might feel a little discriminated against.

But if you’ve ever heard someone complain about a question about Buddy Holly (who died in 1959) as “bloody pop music”, or likewise about the end of the Cold War as “not fair, that was before I was born”, then you’ll hope that sometimes reluctant quizzers have to understand that they won’t be able to answer every single question, but a good quiz master does hope to give every team a fair crack of the whip.

If the age range at a quiz is from 18-70, you’ll try to throw something in for every generation, but if every single question was to be answerable by every single person in the room, you’d have a very narrow frame of reference and a very boring quiz indeed.

Quizzes are tests of knowledge. If you don’t know answers, hopefully there’ll be enough in the question that you can have some kind of fair guess. If you can’t have a fair guess, hopefully there’ll be someone on your team that can. There’s nothing too unreasonable about that.

I remember going to a pub quiz once which was so hard that my team got 18 out of 50 and still came second. Perhaps that was a little much, but I do remember that the questions were interesting and so I didn’t feel that put upon at the end.

And, sure, there are some people that like that mental challenge more than others, people whose brains work more effectively in other areas, and haven’t felt the need to store up bits of knowledge.

But, you know, sometimes it’s worth sticking up for quizzes a little. They are what they are, a test of knowledge, problem-solving and team work, and hopefully a fair one.

The Return of Quiz Quiztofferson

Considering my job, I really don’t take part in many pub quizzes these days. Indeed, it had been a couple of years since I’d last risked my reputation in that way. So, on a Wednesday night when I was off quiz-running duty, I took myself off to a local pub and took on the world.

It was fun. I like quizzes, I realise.

It was your standard “sent out by a successful company” quiz and, I’ve got to say, the last time I’d done one of theirs, I’d found the questions pretty disappointing, but this time round, I was pleasantly surprised – they were tight, pretty clever and interesting [I went back again this week, and the questions were even better]. It goes to show – if you’re writing questions all the time, as the writers of these quizzes are, and as I do, you have good days and bad days. Some days I sit down to write questions and will only come up with a few limp and obvious ones, and then the next day I’ll write 50 questions which I know can be used and re-used. Quality can inevitably vary, it’s just about having an effective quality control system.

It’s fun taking part in a quiz on your own, albeit it’s more like a school exam than a proper pub quiz experience, where banter and discussion and working things out together is part of the fun. Notwithstanding the obligatory barflies trying to give me help when their help is the last thing I wanted, there was no banter for me.

Still, I was pleased. I pretty much nailed it, in terms of eking out the points I could possibly get, and I was pretty confident I’d win, especially when the third place team had a score 11 points lower than mine. But, no, I was thwarted, by one point, dammit, though was happy enough with a little share of the kitty. [The excellent showing of this winning team, incidentally, directly affected my performance on my second visit last night, where I took a wild risk on the wipeout round thinking I’d need everything to beat them, only to find out at the end that if I’d played it safe I’d have won].

Funnily enough, of the nine points I dropped, five of them were on football-related questions, which just goes to show that what you think is your strength isn’t necessarily so. On one of my few ghastly TV appearances, I took on sport as my speciality only to come up horribly short. And yet, I live and breathe sport, always have done, still do. I’ve written about this before in terms of writing questions, that the best questions we write are usually not on our own favourite subjects, but maybe it applies (to a lesser extent) to answering questions as well – we don’t use the problem-solving part of our brain so valuable for quizzes when the subject is something we think we already know  about. Who knows?

Anyway, it was fun to get back in the game. The essence and heart of what we do is the good old pub quiz, so I shouldn’t let so long go by without one in the future.