Handling Queries

There’s nothing more annoying, when participating in a quiz, than a set of questions which is riddled with ambiguities, mistakes and unclear instructions. It is the responsibility of a quiz master to make sure everything about the quiz is as free from doubt and irritation as possible – if you do that, the chances are you’ll avoid having to deal with countless queries throughout the night, though sometimes the queries come and have to be dealt with no matter how clear you’ve been, or think you’ve been.

As discussed in a previous post, the bare minimum for a a quiz master is to have read through the questions beforehand, checking pronunciations, making sure he/she is comfortable with the facts, and looking for any inaccuracies. You may not have written the questions, but you do want to make it seem like you have. That doesn’t necessarily mean withering contempt for any wrong answers, a la Paxman on University Challenge, but it may mean giving off little bits of knowledge around the questions and answers. Not too much, just a little.

So, when a query comes in about an answer you’ve given, you’re able to be confident in rebutting it. I asked a question last week about countries in the Commonwealth (I won’t reveal the exact question!), and one member of the team who would go on to win – who were clearly serious quiz buffs – said ‘What about the Falklands?’. I said, “it’s not a country, it’s an Overseas Territory.” He said “but they take part in the Commonwealth Games”. At which point, one may get a little flustered and concede the point, but I was able to say “Yes, but so does the Isle of Man. Mark Cavendish’s 2006 Commonwealth Gold was won representing the Isle of Man”, which satisfied him. Though the facts of the question were never in doubt, sometimes you need that little extra knowledge to satisfy a determined querier.

NB the ambiguity about the word “country” is one of the most common sources of dissent. You should always make sure you say “independent country” or even “UN Member State” otherwise I guarantee you’ll get all kinds of ‘What about Wales?’ type enquiries.

On which point, as well as checking facts, check for any kind of possible ambiguity in the way the question is asked. Another example of this would be, say, “Which cities have hosted the Olympics …?”. Clarifying you mean “Summer Olympics” will save you plenty of bother.

Nevertheless, however much you’ve checked and however clear you think you’ve been, there’s still be a few folk determined to make their point. It is surprising how often people can be extremely convincing in their query, but still be wrong. “What do you mean Pimlico is not an independent country. I was there last week! I had to go through border control”, that kind of thing. It is also surprising how often people think the best way to express this query is to shout it at you while you are speaking to a roomful of people, rather than having a quiet word between rounds. One should generally of course be polite and attempt to clarify and assuage them with facts alone. However, if you can tell you’ve got a good atmosphere going and the crowd are generally on your side, there’s nothing wrong with putting a dissenting voice in its place with a little sarcasm, a little display of superior knowledge. It is, after all, your job in the circumstance to know more, and as long as it’s good natured, tends to get a great response.

Gauging whether any query or complaint is reasonable is key. Sometimes, someone might claim, say, you were talking too fast, or you said something other than what you think you have said. All you have to do is to check against what other teams wrote. I once asked “What’s the next prime number after 90?” – on being told 97, one woman, furiously, said, you said 19, not 90. The fact every other team put an answer above 90 was enough to suggest she might have listened more closely. However, this would be an example of where you should avoid ambiguity by saying “90 – Nine Zero” [I’m pretty sure I did!]

Even then, after all that, there will be the odd query that’ll bamboozle you a little. My best recent example was a question about a recent Hollywood survey where it was revealed that Robert de Niro had died on screen more than any other star. When this was revealed, a man came up and said “We’ve been racking our brains and we can’t think of the films de Niro has died in. What are they?” Now, funnily enough, it wasn’t me who’d conducted said survey of all the Hollywood films ever released, I was taking the survey on trust, but since De Niro is one of my favourite actors, I did say I’d try to think of them, and started scribbling down film titles. I quickly realised I was getting distracted from the rather more important business of running the quiz, shrugged at the man, and put that one down to experience.

One strategy that can work very effectively in ensuring the smooth running of the quiz (if not necessarily in satisfying the person who raised the query) is to make it clear that if the actual outcome of the quiz is affected by the issue then you will go to lengths to resolve it. And if the outcome of the quiz is not affected by the issue, you can usually just give them the benefit of any doubt to keep them happy, and hope that they will check it as thoroughly as you, the quiz master, will when you are next online.

If you run quizzes yourself, how do you deal with queries?

What’s the strangest query you have ever heard at a quiz?

7 replies
  1. Dr Wa
    Dr Wa says:

    “The quizmaster’s answers are right, even if they’re wrong. Which they aren’t. You can argue all night, you won’t be getting a point….. Question one…..” is how I begin a quiz. Very few debates so far and NO alternative answers EVER accepted! Harsh, but fair!

    That said, I’ve never run one where I didn’t put it together myself. Wouldn’t fancy that really, without at least a few days notice of the questions!

  2. admin
    admin says:

    Very fair if you’ve written the questions…BUT if someone comes up to you with something that you realise is a valid query – perhaps an alternative answer you had completely overlooked (we all do it!)?

    Surely it is better to accept a clearly correct answer than to not accept it and leave a sour taste? I would say that it is harsh, and potentially unfair…

  3. Ben
    Ben says:

    The actor with most onscreen deaths one is fraught with difficult – do you just mean major stars? And what constitutes a major star?

    You say Robert De Niro with however many – but he I’m sure he won’t beat Tony Todd, who seems to die in every movie he’s in! – or Vincent Price who died in 32. Orson Wellse hit 22 on screen deaths.

    • David McGaughey
      David McGaughey says:

      Yes, it’s a good point which, ironically, i wasn’t clear enough about in the blog. The survey was conducted of current major Hollywood stars, which i do make clear when giving out the question [a good example of where to avoid ambiguity!]. The fact that the question deals with the results of a survey makes it indisputable, rather than if the question were simply “Which famous actor/major star/ etc has died the most on screen?”.
      Rather like Family Fortunes, the fact that the survey took place and that Robert de Niro was top of it is sufficient.
      I’m quite sure there are some extras who take pride in dying innumerable times on screen!

  4. admin
    admin says:

    Absolutely – the actor who has died most onscreen is a very tricky one indeed. Can you define “star” or “Hollywoord” sufficiently to make it tight?

    It is a nice question concept though, and one we wanted to use, so we tried to word the question in a way that makes it fair and usable. Although it isn’t clear from the post, the actual wording of our question is something like this (I haven’t got the actual question to hand, but from memory):

    What has Robert de Niro done on screen 15 times, Bruce Willis 11 times, and Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt done 10 times, putting them at the top of the list for major Hollywood stars?

    As a matter of interest – what is your source for the Vincent Price and Orson Wells fact?

      • admin
        admin says:

        Brilliant – never come across that site before. I can feel a question rewrite coming on. Thank you!

        There is nice differentiation on the cinemorgue site between on-screen deaths (“Shot in the chest in a shoot-out”) and off-screen (“Presumably dies of his injuries after his stomach is blown open in an explosion”.


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