Making quizzes work for a mixed audience

This is a guest post by veteran QuizQuizQuiz QuizMaster Barry Bridges

I’ve been inspired to put pen to paper (or should that be finger to keyboard?) following a quiz that I ran last night which involved a very challenging, complicated audience.

They weren’t challenging because they were loud, rude or rowdy – far from it – but instead the difficulty came from the fact that within the small group of participants sat some of the very top names from within the British judiciary, including a number of high court judges. It would be a lie if I said I wasn’t a little intimidated.

As a general rule, if I ever want to make a quiz more difficult I tend to push the questions into a higher-brow direction. Last night was the first quiz I have run in nearly 9 years where to make the questions more challenging I skewed them towards a low-brow, popular culture direction.

All of which leads me to ask the semi-rhetorical question: how do you handle audiences which have a very disparate mix of abilities, cultural references and where the standard of general knowledge is very high? I’d like to share my thoughts.

First off, I’m a firm believer that quizzes need to be inclusive. One approach I am not keen on is making some questions appeal to one part of the audience and other questions appeal to others: for me that  that doesn’t work as I think we want people to participate in the whole quiz; not for it to feel like there are several mini-quizzes taking place at the same time. Additionally, if you’re cherry-picking questions to cater for specific sub-audiences, the quiz doesn’t scan well; easier questions alienate brainboxes as much as intellectual questions put off the man-on-the-street.

A key part of how I like to make mixed groups work is to include questions which are very much outside of everyone’s immediate frame of reference, which require a problem-solving element. For example, Call My Bluff-type questions work well, as do questions that might ask people to place locations on the map that you’ve heard of, but might not know the position of.

Around this, I would argue that you shouldn’t be afraid of popular culture: it’s a great leveller. Often, I’ve found that the more high-brow the audience is, the more they like to be indulged with a question on Eastenders, or teased with a clip of Kylie and Jason. I’m convinced by my own theory that even the greatest intellectual snobs secretly like to switch on X Factor when no-one is looking.

When all is said and done though, what happens if – despite all your attempts – you genuinely cannot reconcile a group of very different abilities? When one team is streaks ahead of the rest, or when one team is proving to be a rather tragic lantern rouge? I think there are two ways of addressing this.

The first one – although drastic – is to put a group out of their misery. Although cheating is most definitely not allowed (and we’re pretty good at spotting it if someone does try to bend the rules) I don’t feel there is any harm in giving a bit of additional support to a team that is languishing miles behind everyone else, provided it’s done with good intentions and in the knowledge that no number of clues will ever catapult them onto the metaphorical podium (although I would caveat this by saying that if a quiz has a wooden spoon prize, we would never deprive a genuinely badly-performing team with the chance to come away as the ‘loser’!).

The second one is to play up to the worst team’s lack of knowledge and showcase this in front of others. You would be surprised just how proud some people are of their lack of general knowledge; it’s a great talking point within the office and 9 times out of 10 the team in last place has a company-wide reputation for troublemaking and hi-jinks. Sometimes, the more you highlight their woeful performance, the more they feel involved (and – ironically – the more teams sometimes try to compete for the last place position).

So, in summary, catering for a mixed crowd can be difficult. You never want a walkover, but at QuizQuizQuiz I’m very careful to structure the quiz and question-order to provide a varied, balanced data of cerebral interrogation which caters to everyone in some form. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but hopefully I please all of the people most of the time, which is the next best thing.

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