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.

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!)


Comparing Corporate Quizzes

Corporate quizzes are our main business. I’ve explained before what a “corporate quiz” is, but essentially, most often, it’s like a pub quiz except there are more people in suits i.e. the “corporate” is in the participants, rather than the content.

So, what of those participants? How do they fare? As a QuizQuizQuiz quiz master, I’ve spent a lot of my life dipping into the corporate world, given my name to a lot of receptionists, worn a lot of lanyards, seen a lot of offices and conference suites, met a fair few CEOs and a lot of PAs, have along the way picked up a little bit of what the difference is between various industries which, when I was younger, I would categorise in blanket terms of being “business” or “city”.

We’ve done quizzes for all kinds of professions and non-professions … lawyers and bankers and support workers, doctors and traders and insurers, programmers and advertisers, marketers and teachers, consultants and accountants, journalists and electricians, charity workers, salespeople, teachers, builders and chefs, gamesmakers and engineers, as well as children, parents, volunteers and churchgoers, not to mention all other uncategorisable quizzers.

What can I tell you? Do any stereotypes hold up? Well, I will say that on the occasions we’ve found that teams have been keeping their own (and everyone else’s!) score to the end, vigilant and competitive, they’ll be lawyers or parents of private prep school children. And I will say, that, yes, traders are extremely loud and bawdy and competitive but also that they actually really listen and pay attention, even when it seems like they’re not.

Beyond that gentle generalisation, well, people are people. Sure, one picks up little things about the differences between groups, but quite often that’ll be about the culture within a company, rather than wider professions.

And can I tell you who is best at quizzes? Well, we did once try to find out, just for a laugh. We did a statistical study of the scoresheets for all our quizzes. Now, there is a massive caveat  which really renders the study a little bit worthless, which is that people aren’t getting the same quiz. Indeed the very skill of a QuizQuizQuiz quiz master is to prepare the quiz beforehand and adapt it as it’s happening so that it is neither too easy for the best team nor too hard for the worst. So, actually, across professions, we would hope to discover that average scores are very similar.

I’ve also said that we’re aiming for the highest score at any quiz we run to be no higher than around 90% and for the lowest to be no lower than around 60%, so I suppose we’d hope for the average scores across professions to be somewhere between 70% and 75%, if we were really good at what we do …

Well, what do you know? Our statistical research told us that, across professions, the  highest average score was just over 75% and the lowest, just over 69%. So, we can be pretty happy with it. In fact, nearly all the professions are between 71% and 75%, and as for the only one a bit lower, at 69% (to ensure no embarrassment, I won’t reveal what it is), we actually run a lot of huge events for that profession with anywhere up to 60 teams, and the more teams there are, the harder it can be to make sure the lower teams just there for the jolly are still staying in touch in the scoring charts, so it’s an explicable blip.

What profession was the winner, for interest’s sake? Technology, just ahead of Education and Law. But do take that with a pinch of salt. My own experience tells me a quiz crowd, a company, a profession can always surprise you. If you go in thinking either “they’ll be really good at quizzes, they’re lawyers” or  “let’s keep it pretty basic, they’re …” you may get your quiz level totally wrong. It’s always subtler than that.

Which profession is really the best at quizzes? Well, quiz masters, I hope ….

Running Quiz Nights

I’ve run quite a few quiz nights recently, and they’ve all gone smoothly. It’s not for me to judge if everyone there had the best time of their lives (I expect they did!) but there were lots of smiles and cheers and nice comments at the end. Very pleasing, and what I’ve also noticed is that there hasn’t been a single “issue” to deal with, no connectivity problems to sort out, no awkward room spaces, no accusations of cheating or changes in timetable, nothing like that.

Tempting fate I know, but pretty much every quiz night I’ve run this year has gone exactly according to plan. If they didn’t go swimmingly (which I think they did) it would have been no one’s fault but my own.

Is that preferable? Yes, pretty much. Having said that, it can be very satisfying to triumph against the odds, to deal with tricky situations and run the best quizzes we can. Quiz nights like those I’ve run recently are basically as easy as they look , but quite often it’s rather thrilling to keep everything looking controlled and easy while working extremely hard, just beneath the surface.

That, above all, is what being a QuizQuizQuiz Quiz Master is all about – if something goes wrong, being able to cover it so no one notices that anything has gone wrong. I remember, nine years ago, at one of the very first events where I was a professional quiz master, doing a full sound and visual check at a hotel conference room, then leaving the room for a work presentation, only to come back and find that there was no audio feed from my laptop and no one could figure out why. I managed to just run the best quiz I could with a complete change of questions, emphasis on visuals and interactivity and none of the participants were any the wiser. One thing I was told very early on, which we’re proud to say is still true, is that, whatever problems I have to deal with, it’s still going to be the best quiz most of our clients have ever been to. We really think that. In fact we know it.

So, sometimes, I have a run of quizzes which go completely without a hitch. The timings are spot on, the teams are smart, polite, cheerful, well-organised, the room is the right size, the sound is crystal clear, the food is good, the angels are singing etc …some time soon, the food will come out late, there’ll be 5 more teams than we were told, there’ll be a team made up entirely of people who don’t speak English, the mic i’ve been provided with will cut out, it happens … and it’s still a great quiz night, in fact sometimes even better than it would have been. And those are the ones which are often the most memorable of all for a quiz master.

Quiz Master Checklist

When we send quiz packs out to clients to run quizzes themselves, we always include an extensive ‘Quiz Master Guide’ to help them run the event smoothly, which breaks down the format, the running order, etc. And when we hire a new professional quiz master to run quizzes for us, we train them, ease them in, get them over a period of time to the point where they can confidently and skilfully run a quiz for us.

This post will be rather more informal. It’s just a few observations and hints which I just about feel qualified to give to anyone who fancies running a quiz, is new to running quizzes or is trying to get the hang of running quizzes.

First of all, it’s true that anyone can be a quiz master or quiz mistress. At its basic level, it doesn’t need any special talent. We’ve all been to (and still enjoyed) enough quizzes run by dozy, disinterested bar staff to know that’s true.

But not everyone’s going to be good at it. It does require a base level of confidence and clarity in speaking in public, a certain degree of composure, of decent judgement and, in my view, it really does require that you yourself are pretty decent at quizzes.

Having said that, this checklist is for quiz masters, not quiz writers. That’s a different ball game. I’m not going to talk about actual round construction and question writing here.

So here’s a bullet list of tips as they come to me. You may not feel they are universally applicable, but I think they’re a decent place to start.

  • Know your material – I’ve said it here and in other places many many times, but for me this is the Number 1 fundamental. Even if you haven’t written the questions, you have to seem like you have, you have to know their context. This applies to everyone from a TV quiz master to a humble pub quiz host. Otherwise you risk looking like an idiot and a fraud very quickly.
  • Don’t try and be too funny. The quiz is the main thing, funny can be a nice side product. We get a fair few enquiries from aspiring quiz masters telling us they’ve got cracking banter, or words to that effect (if you want to be a QuizMaster for us, we don’t want you to be the entertainment…you are the medium for the entertainment).
  • Be nice. People can be annoying and sometimes you do need to be firm with them, and sometimes it’s ok to put someone down a little to show you’re in control. But, by and large, stay calm, be patient and be nice.
  • Have a clear table/space on the bar in front of you to keep everything tidy and nicely organised..
  • Keep people informed on exactly what is happening in the short term, so they’re not confused and irritated, but keep the long term plans back so that you can adapt, and also retain an element of pleasant surprise.
  • Have a helper to do the marking and field enquiries if you can.
  • Be aware of what is and isn’t pleasant to listen to. It’s really important to get the acoustics as close to right as you possibly can. Do a sound check beforehand, and be aware of where people are sitting in relation to the speakers.
  • Repeat things, sometimes a lot. Questions, question numbers, instructions, answers, scores etc. There’s always someone who wasn’t listening first time, there’s probably someone who will tell you that you didn’t make something clear, and you will be able to be absolutely confident you did if you repeated it!
  • Don’t give half marks.
  • Don’t make up magic bonus marks on the spot!
  • Be aware of pacing. Give people time to work things out but don’t let it drag. Don’t run rounds which turn into epic adventures. Don’t run “sessions” which are too long. One and a half hours is probably longer than one session of a quiz night should be without a break.
  • You don’t have to have background music, but it helps to avoid “dead air”. You can cover not knowing what you’re doing for a second by playing a little background music.
  • What if, heaven forfend, you’re wrong? How do you deal with it? Is the quiz master always right, even if he/she is not? I’m going to sound like a right pompous chump here but I don’t quite remember, as it’s been a long time since I’ve actually run a quiz where one of my answers was wrong, wrong, wrong. That goes back to point 1. I’d say, “no, the quiz master is not always right”. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. People have google. Who are you trying to kid? Find a way to swallow your pride while holding your dignity if there’s a blatant mistake. However, quite often, a question might have some manner of viable alternative, which people suggest, which the quiz writer hadn’t thought of… I can only say “be flexible” and be prepared to be generous. Use the magic of the internet yourself to confirm facts quickly.
  • Don’t disqualify people. You don’t want a fight to break out.
  • Don’t drink while running a quiz. Well, drink water. Anyone might stumble over their words once or twice within a couple of hours. Stumbling over your words looks a lot worse if you’ve a beer by your side. Also, a little tip from personal misadventure. Don’t drink too much Diet Coke while running pub quizzes or corporate quizzes! Just don’t, trust me. It’s a hard habit to break.

Ok, that’s all I can think of for now. A lot of that is probably blindingly obvious, and I’ve probably missed quite a lot of it. You mightn’t necessarily agree with all of it, but hopefully it’s of some use.

What makes a quiz round?

This is a subject I’ve dropped into various posts before, but I don’t think I’ve ever written specifically on it. I’ll keep it brief and to the point.

We try to avoid quiz rounds which are too subject-specific. We get a lot of enquiries where people suggest something like “8 rounds on the usual subjects … History, Geography, Food and Drink, Sport, Entertainment, Science, Roundabouts and can we have a round on X-Factor …?” and we do our best to persuade people, nearly always successfully, that we will include all those subjects (though we might keep Roundabouts to a minimum unless we’re absolutely sure it’ll go down well) but we’ll just spread them out a bit between rounds.

The logic is fairly simple. If a round is on a specific subject and that specific subject is not to someone’s liking, they’re more likely to switch off for its duration. And if lots of people aren’t into a subject, lots of people will switch off, and we don’t want that, obviously. Likewise, if a few people are an expert on a given subject, and lots aren’t, then that’s a bit unfair.

There’s another good reason. We want to fit as many good questions into our quizzes as possible, within well-structured rounds. If we’ve agreed to do a round on, say, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of the 7th Century, it may be that they’re aren’t 10 top-class questions on that subject with varying difficulty enough to make a nicely nuanced round.

That reminds me of how we always used to start our quizzes for new clients (not so much now, so i don’t feel like I’m giving away a trade secret). We’d bring up a screen which showed a classical temple, and say “And now, the first round, on Ancient Greek Architecture …” to accompanying groans, before saying “Just kidding” clicking on the screen and the image would be shown to be part of something far more fun and engaging, to general relief and excitement.

The point being that a round on Ancient Greek Architecture would not be a great way to start a quiz, even (mainly) for experts on Ancient Greek Architecture.

We want our quiz rounds to allow for variety, to be intriguing, to get people talking, to be fair to all players. So we’re always coming up with quiz night ideas, tools for our quiz masters to keep the full crowd interested and on their toes. Over the course of our quizzes, we hope that you’ll get some questions on your favourite broad area, whether it’s Geography, History, Language, Drinks, Sport, TV, Film, Books, Art, Music, Politics or Animals, Chemistry, Business, Computers, Food, or whatever. Some of the questions, in fact a lot of them, will incorporate several of those subjects all at once. That’s another thing – good quiz questions can be hard to categorise.

When we used to run a  pub quiz, we ran a round in which, week on week, we asked teams to submit topics from which we’d choose 3 to have 5 questions of each the next week. What came back was endlessly inventive – Salty Snacks of the 80s, Kriss Akabusi, Questions that the Bar Staff could answer, Accidental Celebrity Genitalia, Big Feet, Bubbles, Countries that Don’t Exist … you get the idea. But in order to make it work, we had to think laterally. Each sub-topic had to be played with in order not to turn the joke sour and maintain the integrity of the round – and make even obscure specialist subjects accessible to the non-specialist.

If you come to one of our Corporate Quizzes, what you’ll get is a range of well-developed, easy-to-explain, enjoyable rounds which usually cover a bit of everything. Even people praying for a round on Roundabouts don’t end up feeling hard done by (actually they might do, but hopefully they’ll enjoy everything else!).

A Year in Quiz

We’re approaching the end of the busiest quiz season – our quiz masters have been flat out for the last few months running charity quizzes, school quizzes, brand launch quizzes, company quizzes, quiz competitions, university quizzes and Christmas quizzes up and down the country. And then, when it gets to the few days before Christmas, naturally enough … nothing. Not for a while, anyway. It gradually picks up again as January progresses (a good time to get a free date in our diary, if you’re interested) and hits a decent stride again in February.

But late December and early January gives us the breathing space to take stock and look closely at our product. We review all our feedback from the year, we look at all our material, write new questions where needed and collate everything we’ve produced in the previous year into a brand new database.

Every year, we want our quiz masters to run better quizzes than they did last year, so we have to improve our material and train people to use that material as well as possible.

At the start of 2014, in particular, we made a determined effort to improve our quiz nights as much as possible (I keep on resisting the urge to use a phrase like “take it to the next level”, “give us the wow factor”, “dial up the quiz experience to 11” … phew ….). We gently phased out a few old favourite rounds which perhaps belonged to a different era; we redesigned our on screen graphics, we created a lot more video content; we improved our picture rounds; created lots more varied audio content; came up with several new round ideas and determined to actually use them rather than relying on the tried and trusted; we bought a few new little gizmos and gadgets which just make quiz running a little smoother; and we continued working on further technological advances (technology not being my own strong point, I shall elaborate no further out of mild ignorance).

Anyway, it’s been a more exciting year than usual, seeing how all these new quiz night ideas stood up, seeing if we’re bringing a noticeably better quiz than in previous years.

Speaking for myself as a quiz master (rather than as a question writer), it’s been great. My first quiz with all the new material was for 55 teams in a huge conference room in London … and was being filmed … so no pressure. But I instantly saw what a positive response the new stuff was getting. One of the best things has been having a larger range of rounds to choose from. I can go into a quiz confident that I have different styles and lengths of round to suit every occasion, to adapt on the spot if needs be. Countless new questions have rapidly become old favourites.

As we’ve gained more and more repeat clients down the years, it became a challenge ensuring they were getting something fresh in terms of quiz rounds and content every time, but this year, we really haven’t had to worry about that so much. There’s so much new, fun stuff, it would be impossible to do something that was same-old, same-old.

And the good thing is we’re full of ideas to improve our quizzes for next year. There’s a massive bank of new material to incorporate and a few great new round formats to work on promoting from the “lab” to the “field”. Just need a little Christmas break, and then back to it!

Weird Places to Run Quizzes

I ran a quiz recently in a London night club, which isn’t a particularly weird place to run a corporate quiz. Quite often clients arrange for their quizzes to be in rooms in clubs – sometimes this is ideal, as we can just plug into a perfectly set up DJing booth.

On this occasion, there was one little problem: the “separate” room we were in had swing doors through to the main dancefloor with nothing in between – I fought a battle with the cheesy hits coming from the adjoining room all night – I think I won the battle, but ended the evening a little hoarse and a little deafer than I was before.

It got me thinking about the stranger/less ideal places I’ve run quiz nights.  It’s one of the main differences between what we and most quiz masters do: we travel around and set up ad hoc to run quizzes in many, many different venues. We always get it to work, but sometimes it’s easier than others.

There isn’t, as such, an ideal venue. What we’re looking for, roughly, is a room where everyone can see us/the screen(s) (so columns, nooks and crannies and L-shapes are usually a bit of a no-no), where either portable/in-built speakers can be placed where they don’t deafen participants or give feedback, where there’s enough space for everyone, where there’s at least enough light to read and write, where there’s atmosphere rather than sterility and, above all else really, a distinct space where there isn’t noise from somewhere else seeping in and likewise where we don’t have to worry about disturbing other people who aren’t taking part in the quiz. Different kinds of rooms can suit different events, and, like I say, we can make it work even when it’s not perfect.

Generallym, our clients choose the venue and we help them in advance as much as we can – it’s very rare that we say a venue they’ve chosen is really impossible, but we do sometimes advise a repeat client that a venue they used one year really shouldn’t be used for a quiz again.

It usually works very well. There’ve been some tough ones though. Open courtyards in the rain, while 100s of office workers looked on from the outside, bemused. Sections of restaurants separated from the rest of the venue by no more than a bench. Nightclubs where the light could not be raised above a dim twilight. Riverboats with very small indoor sections. Private member clubs without chairs or tables. Downstairs rooms at curry houses where I had to set up on a fridge. Tiny alcoves where our helpers had to sit on the floor, under the table. Such a severe lack of space that our helper had to sit on the other side of a closed door. Space museums with teams in separate exhibition rooms. Leith Dockers Club at 10pm on a Sunday after karaoke night (that was probably my all time favourite). Those are just the ones I can remember. Often, though, a room which ought to be fine has some surprising problem, but rarely anything which can’t be solved out of the QuizMaster’s bag of tricks (both literally and figuratively): vast lengths of cable, an ingeniously positioned speaker or two, huge amounts of duct tape, auxiliary cables, standing in exactly the right spot and speaking at exactly the right volume. It’s all part of the fun, I suppose.




Quiz Night Ideas

A quiz night can just be (and often is) 10/20/30/40/50 fairly random general questions asked in succession. That can make for a great quiz. There doesn’t have to be some overarching concept, there don’t have to be different rounds. Very often, if a quiz is split into rounds, it’ll be, say, 6 rounds of 10 subjects eg Geography, Entertainment, Sport, History, Music, General Knowledge, and again, that can make for a great quiz.

That’s usually not how it works on TV, of course. There have been a few overwhelming simple formats for TV shows (simpler even than 15-to-1) but generally, TV executives/audience want something devious/exciting/clever to hook onto, something that makes the quiz more than just a quiz, and more of a show.

Perhaps led by this, real life quiz nights have become more imaginative. No one wants to drown the sanctity of a fine, solid quiz question in “concept”, but we at QuizQuizQuiz, and numerous other folk who take the business of running quizzes seriously, have tried to find various ways to make the quizzes we run as fun/exciting/interactive/engaging (pick your buzzword!) as possible.

Because I’m a geek (though I pretend not to be) I recently passed my mind over all the quiz nights I’ve ever run for QuizQuizQuiz to see how many distinct round formats there had been (not even just rounds with different names but with the same basic idea). The answer is almost 50, and the funny thing is only about 5 of those are defined by a basic subject matter.

One round that has featured in almost every quiz I’ve ever run is “Music” – no tricks, nothing clever, it’s a music round, mainly involving “Name the artist” clips and a few other things, then there’s “Sport” but these days I include a full Sport round in barely 1 in 5 quizzes. Apart from that, it’s very rare to have any kind of subject-based round – sometimes our client has asked us to do one specially and we’ve obliged, but on the whole, apart from Sport and Music, our rounds are essentially mixed subject, but held together by an idea. (Indeed, even the sport and music rounds can be mixed subject – just with a sport/music theme to them).

So, as a quiz master and question writer, I’m not just thinking about questions, I’m trying to think of round ideas, round ideas that mean a QuizQuizQuiz quiz night incorporates the full armoury of tricks and treats at our disposal, that no one feels left out, that different parts of the brain are utilised, that people are moving, laughing, listening, talking, that the quiz is “interactive” (whatever that means), challenging, varied and fair.

The ideas for those 40-odd rounds have come from various places – sometimes they’re pretty self-explanatory and floating around the quiz ether, sometimes they’re forced upon us by circumstances, sometimes it’s about thinking of a good way to use a new piece of technology. Some round ideas have worked better than others – nothing should be too complicated, nothing too long or too short, rounds should allow variety and hopefully make good use of video and audio clips and a few other tricks that we keep up our sleeves.

The important thing is that our quiz nights have not stayed the same since we began over a decade ago. Sure, some ideas last, and some round ideas have been used regularly by all our quiz masters over a long period of time, but we’re always trying to mix it up. The average format of a quiz I run has changed significantly in the last year, let alone in the last five years.

No matter what the rounds are, one thing that always drives the format of an evening is that we do everything we can to ensure (even guarantee!) that they come with quality questions and plenty of fun.

Common Quiz Night Complications: Part 4

Another entry in this ongoing series, where I highlight recurrent, apparently reasonable enough,  requests from clients which we prefer not to include in our corporate quizzes and charity quizzes. So far, I’ve mentioned

  • Exaggerated Theming
  • Penalty or Bonus Points
  • Buying Clues

Now, it’s time to discuss (and eventually dismiss)…

Running Scores

Firstly, we’ll admit there isn’t a right and wrong  with this one. Plenty of good quizzes have running scores being read out, or indeed displayed on a flipchart, screen or laser display board.

You might well say “It’s like suggesting there shouldn’t be a Premier League table throughout the season. That would be rubbish”. Well, that would be impossible, for starters (unless Sepp Blatter announces even more sinister top-down proposals than he has managed to yet), but would it really be rubbish? Think how many dull games between mid-table teams with nothing to play for there used to be at the end of  the season, how much that lack of inspiration can still, even now when financial incentives have been brought in so that every position is worth fighting for to some extent, adversely affect the end of a season.

Here’s another sporting example. Occasionally, in Championship Boxing, someone’s had the bright idea of having the judges’ tallies being announced to the crowd (and hence to the fighters) at the end of the 4th and 8th round. But they found that the disheartened boxer who discovered he was miles behind on the scores would just give up, knowing that without a spectacular knockout there was no hope for him. Now, opponents of boxing might suggest that’s a good thing, that a boxer getting soundly beaten might be spared further punishment, but the point is that something introduced with the intention of providing the crowd with greater excitement actually had the opposite effect.

It’s not even necessarily the teams at the bottom who might lose interest. There’s glory in being rubbish and acting up to it. It’s those teams who might have gone into the quiz thinking they had a decent chance, but if they’re gradually dropping a few points per round, they’re falling behind. If it’s just the odd point here and there, they might well think they’re in with a chance right to the end, even though in truth, they’re about 10 behind. If they know it, disappointment and ennui might become evident, it’s only natural. No one wanted to be Spurs throughout the 90s (even, really, up to now), did they, with their endless mid-table boredom, and trust me, I was a Spurs fan, almost wishing we could have the occasional relegation scrap to liven things up.

We appreciate that people think that reading out running scores might keep things lively and exciting, foster and nourish rivalries, but, really, it can have the opposite effect. Here are a few other reasons …
1. It adds excitement to the final round, which in our quizzes has a format carefully designed to include an element of jeopardy. Teams gamble a little bit on what answers to write, and that gamble is more fun if they don’t know exactly what they’re aiming for. E.g. if the top team knows going into the last round they are leading by 6, they know they can play it very safe on  the last round – if they don’t know exactly, they have to take a bit more of a gamble, and, if they blow it spectacularly in the last round by getting lots wrong, well; that just adds to the fun.

2. Time. Our quizzes run to a well orchestrated flow. We build momentum and like to keep it going. Reading out running scores at the end of each round will slow the quiz down. This is only exacerbated if, as we’re sometimes asked, we put scores up on screen. In this case, the amount of time for scores to be added up and typed up will severely slow the quiz down. The only way to do this even remotely quickly is by inputting the scores directly into an excel sheet with a formula and then switching the signal to that laptop displaying the scores (as the quizmaster’s laptop will be in constant use and everything would come to a grinding halt if he had to stop using his laptop for a considerable time while scofes are inputted).

There would be cost of significant time and/or an extra, expensive piece of equipment.

3. The marking. We pride ourselves on the speed and quality of our marking, the way it blends seamlessly into the running order of the quiz. Running scores would make life a lot harder for the markers and prevent them doing their job as best they could.

Mistakes can be made, in both marking and adding up. In marking, it can take a fair bit of work to decipher some teams’ messy scribblings and getting all the sheets, correctly marked, to the quizmaster in time to read them out. Our markers are very good at it, but part of the process involves double-checking, throughout the quiz, that we totted each sheet, each round up right, so that we can be sure we’ve got it spot on by the end. Running scores puts pressure  on the marking to be perfect every step of the way, but any minor mistake, which we’d pick up during ongoing checks, would be highlighted by instantly giving out running scores.

What we do, always, is give out the scores for each round immediately the round is finished (though sometimes just a handful of the top scores in a larger quiz, for the sake of  time and momentum, though we’ll do our best to make sure all the team names, funny or not, are read out at some point).

Alert and sharp teams may well have a very decent idea of how they’re doing and who their rivals are – that’s fine. Likewise, sometimes individuals come up to us and ask us how they’re doing. We’re happy to give a vague idea – indeed I often announce how many points are separating teams etc. but anything more precise is to be avoided.

Really, tension and suspense is at the heart of it. It’s a similar case to when people hand in their answer sheet and say “Ooh, number 7 was a tester. What was the answer?” and we say “We’ll let you know when we read it out” and they say “But we’ve handed it it now, what’s the harm?” and the harm is that, once they know the answer, that will probably spread through the room, and so, by the time I read out the answer, which teams have been quarrelling over, rather than the roar of joy/shriek of despair which will greet it if teams are kept from knowing, there’ll be a damp pfft if everybody already knows. Might as well just hand people a sheet at the start, take it in, mark it and hand it back without a word.

Likewise, if teams know their scores all the way through, the tension will gradually be drained from the evening. Who knows, some teams might go home, start throwing paper planes, start cheating.

I said there wasn’t a right and wrong answer, but I’ve written this post as if there is! There are, I’m sure, positives to giving out running scores, but they don’t work for our format of quiz – and so we don’t do running scores: generally when people hire us they do so because they want us, with our thousands of quizzes worth of experience, to do what we know works best for our quizzes,