The Gender (Bias) Question

I’ve had the question of gender bias in quizzing on my mind a fair bit recently, but have been directly prompted to write this by this spectacularly grim exposé of a men-only charity event in London.

Some will be shocked, some less so. I think I’d be more shocked if I hadn’t been involved in what is loosely termed “corporate events” for the last 12 years.

I hasten to add, very strongly, that I have never hosted a quiz at an event anything like that described, and nor, to my knowledge, have any of my colleagues. In that sense it is shocking. But we’ve all run high-end corporate, testosterone-heavy evenings where a lot of money was on display and/or raised for charity. I also know that some of our female (and male) quiz hosts and quiz assistants have experienced a range of inappropriate behaviours in that kind of environment.

I’m going to take this opportunity not just to focus on the bad behaviour of rich city men but to take a bit more of a reflective look at myself, our company and the wider world of quizzing.

The company was set up by three people, one of them a woman, Lesley-Anne Brewis, around 15 years ago. She is still involved with the day-to-day running of the company and probably has been more involved than anyone else over that 15 year period.

We currently have two female quiz hosts (and in the past have had two others) and rather more male, but over the last few years, Lesley and Abbie Jones have been our two busiest quiz hosts. So, if you hire QuizQuizQuiz to run a quiz for you, there’s about a 50/50 chance the quiz will be run by a woman.

Occasionally, as we’ve written about before, Lesley has had to field enquiries from event organisers who have sought to dictate that the host be a man “as a woman wouldn’t be able to handle the crowd”. Our experience and our response is that such an attitude and such a request has no justification.

If it is an extremely boisterous crowd, I think all our hosts can handle and harness that well without playing to it. None of us are of the “eh, lads, banter, banter, women, eh?” persuasion, but neither is raucousness to be discouraged at a quiz. It is a line which I believe we tread pretty well, and also, I should say, most people at quizzes are pretty polite, respectful and also great fun, be they traders, teachers or technicians.

Some quiz organisers have specific concerns that their event, a work night out, may become excessively blokey and banterous, and under that circumstance we’re confident we can keep a check on that element and run a more, shall we say elegant evening.

Though we run a full range of quizzes for all kinds of crowds, and it depends on the company or the nature of the event, when we ask, in advance, for demographic information, 60/40 or 70/30 men is probably the most common split, particularly at city firms. In preparing a quiz, our quiz hosts should always pay full attention to the demographic information they receive (and then further adapt on the night), whether it relates to gender split/nationality/age or anything else.

For all sorts of social and cultural reasons, the atmosphere and nature of a quiz is affected by these factors, and we have to be mindful of that.

But do we get it right, as a company, as quiz hosts, particularly as question writers? That’s my bit. I write nearly all our questions, have done for over a decade. I’m a man (yes I am) …

Jack Waley-Cohen, one of the other co-founders, is my main collaborator, particularly on TV shows, and we have used many other writers, both freelance and employed, down the years, of whom there have been a few women but the majority men. But overwhelmingly, it is me, as writer, as editor, as organiser, who dictates what questions emerge from QuizQuizQuiz. So – to carry on the theme of quoting songs originally released in 1988 which reached Number 2 in the UK singles chart – I’m starting with the man in the mirror …

… am I asking him to change his ways? Not too much, maybe a little bit …

Sometimes I write to order, sometimes I write freestyle, often it’s a bit of both. I write questions which I think are fun and interesting, and I try to combine that with writing specifically to an audience, whether that’s a TV audience, a pub quiz crowd, a demographic playing a particular app. My job is mainly to write entertaining questions that most people like, obviously. When you’re “just doing your job”, you can lose track of identity politics and, mainly, you should do exactly that.

But there are times when I know I could and should have been more aware of the details.

Where shall I start? Sport. This is often where I start when I want to understand something about myself and the world. I have written about sports rounds in a professional capacity before and also, if you’re interested, have written in a personal capacity about the inequalities facing women in the world of sport.

I love sport, I’ve always loved it, and I can be a bit defensive about it. I’ve often taken some version of the head-in-the-sand “sport is great for everybody and if you don’t like it that’s your problem” attitude.  I grew up in a house where my mother was always listening to Test Match Special, would indulge me prattling on about football for hours, where my two sisters (and brother) all played, followed and talked about sport to varying degrees.

Sport is not a “male” thing, I would say. And it isn’t, except to the extent that men make it so … which is a pretty huge extent, as any number of recent stories will attest.

In the majority of the 100s of quizzes I’ve run, I haven’t included a sport round.  This is not because I think sport is an intrinsically unfair topic, but more because of the potential groans when it is announced, which are just a bit of a mood-killer. At quizzes, people who don’t like sport let it be known they don’t. More often it’s women, but certainly not always. If I could justifiably say each time, “this will be a gender-balanced, all-encompassing sport round from which no one will feel excluded”, that would be fine, but who would I be kidding? Taking into account people’s knowledge-base, that would be hard to do.

But, equally, there are things I could have done better. I haven’t always written “England men’s football team” where I could just write “England football team”, I haven’t always sought to make a sport round as diverse and balanced as I could. There is value in these small actions.

The thing is, sport is a good subject for quiz questions. It is full of records and verifiable facts. Once, when I ran a sport round, a woman called out “if there’s a sport round for the men, there should be a fashion round for women?” … beyond questioning whether those are really gender-specific equivalents, well, at times, I have tried to write a solid set of questions about fashion. It wasn’t my finest work … the truth is that probably a fashion round written by me is not good, rather than a fashion round per se, but still, the trove of usable, “factable” facts is not so immediately accessible, put it that way.

As a quiz host, you’re in danger of becoming defensive about any number of issues, not just sport. At QuizQuizQuiz, we set out to run enjoyable and accessible quizzes which are fair for everybody – that’s our calling card. If people assume that’s not what’s happening, that is annoying. If you hear an American person protesting that the picture round is unfairly biased against them when there are 7 American faces and only half a British face on the sheet, or a young person protesting that Watergate was before they were born, or an older person protesting that they can’t be expected to know anything about pop culture when there’s a question about Buddy Holly (yes, I’ve had all those things more than once), you can gradually learn to take umbrage.

But … I have equally faced certain truths when we have been asked to compile and host quizzes slightly outside the comfort zone. We attempt to tailor every quiz to its audience, and we do it successfully. Down the years, we’ve been asked to host quizzes for children, for over-65s, for women, for LGBT events, for Diversity events, for Synagogues, for Chinese people, for Americans, for Scottish people and Irish people, for Christian speed daters, for everybody specific and nobody specific. We do it and we do it well. I love writing quiz questions and I’m pretty good at it. But, if someone says “this quiz is, basically, for 25-45 year old University-educated men who live within touching distance of London”, suffice to say I don’t have to go deep into my research bunker to find material that suits the requirement.

That’s me. But also, importantly, it’s our main audience. It’s our bread and butter. So, consciously and subconsciously, I’ve written 1000s of questions to suit that. There remain subtle challenges. I was 27 when I started, now I’m 39. It is a lttle bit harder to hit the young professional’s cultural sweet spot. And are my quizzes inherently weighted towards men? This is the tough question to face.

The good thing is we produce enough material that it is always possible to create a quiz that suits its audience, as well as being able to write new material to suit pretty much any requirement. Sometimes a quiz is 80/20 men taking part, sometimes around 50/50, sometimes mainly women. There is not really an accurate way to judge if quizzes are unfairly weighted to give an advantage to one gender – anecdotally, I see quiz teams which contain a good balance of men and women usually win, and I’ve never had someone come up to me and tell me the quiz I just ran has reinforced the patriarchy.

But if I cast my eye over our database, there are a lot more questions about men than women. That’s the uncomfortable truth. A lot more. Be they in history, politics, entertainment or sport. Is that unavoidable? Somewhat. All those US presidents and Roman emperors, all those Oscar-nominated film directors, all those Sports Personalities of the Year which are quiz meat-and-drink … as a quiz writer, do I reflect “history” or just the male version of history.

I have to ask myself, if our quiz-writing responsibilities were split 50/50 between me and a a woman, would we have a more even spread, subject-wise, and I expect the answer is yes.

So, I can do better. But then again, everybody can do better.

Gender inequality has been one of the biggest stories of the last few years, across sport, across the entertainment industry and the media, across politics, science, the arts and everyday life. It won’t go away.

How about the wider world of quizzing? Some of the most well known quizzers in Britain are women, such as Anne Hegerty and Jenny Ryan on The Chase, & Judith Keppel, Lisa Thiel and Beth Webster on Eggheads, as are the hosts of some of Britain’s favourite quizzes, such as Sandi Toksvig on 15 to 1 and, of course, Victoria Coren Mitchell on Only Connect.

We’ve worked in TV a fair bit over the last few years, so have a few observations.

Generally, on the “question production” side of things, whether that’s writing, editing or verifying, I’d say there are more men, but not by a huge amount (you might simply want to check credits of major quiz shows for evidence of this), and I’ve honestly seen nothing suggesting it is a hostile environment to women.

One of the show’s we’ve worked on is The Code, where the co-host/quiz expert, with Matt Allwright, is our own Lesley-Anne Brewis. As for the participants, there is a general attempt in casting, I think, to have as much as balance as possible. In terms of winners on The Code, in the first series, there was a good balance of men and women, and in the second series, more men, but both reflective of the ratio of participants. Generally, I’m told, far more men apply to quizzes than women, but some quizzes are able to “cast” in order to have a nice and balanced mix of contestants over the course of a series.

As for Only Connect, though I have no precise insight into the contestant selection process, it is a show where the quality of the teams is the utmost importance – each episode stands or falls by all the participants being good at playing Only Connect. More men apply for and appear on Only Connect than women, but that ratio is gradually changing. Of participants in the final, it is, so far, around 1/5 women, but that is significantly on the increase in the past few seasons. I sometimes see people comment disapprovingly on Twitter when there are (pretty occasionally) two all-male teams against each other. I can see why people are disappointed if that is the case, but all I can say is Only Connect has a female host and a majority female crew and has absolutely no interest in being seen as a “male” show.

University Challenge (of which I have no personal experience) has occasionally faced criticism for the maleness of the teams, but the criticism was met with the reasonable response that the show is just casting the best teams that the universities sent. Following on from that, there were some articles suggesting that university quiz societies were sometimes male-dominated… soon one realises that it is hard to untangle, as in other fields,  what might be a specific inequality and what is the endless cycle of male-dominated traditions.

More quizzers are men. Consequently, more quizzers are men. And on we go. Anything run by and participated in by mainly men will, even without any specific ill will on anyone’s part, be less open and welcoming to women. Unless active steps are taken.

The question of whether “men are more inclined to be quizzers because of how their brains are” is, up to a point, beyond me, but I have never seen any evidence of that, and based on the all-round mental skills required to be good at a wide variety of quizzes, I do not personally believe that is true, anything but.

I was cruelly schooled in the fallacy of the male quizzer very early on, when, in my family, I was always the “quizzy” one who made a habit of memorising lists etc, but when it actually came to playing Trivial Pursuit, I was always baffled as to how my less ostentatious sisters ended up winning the day …

I can’t deny there is gender bias in quizzing. There are other biases too. A quiz may well have a specific bias based on the writer’s interests. A quiz is, fatuous as it may sound, biased towards people who actively enjoy taking part in quizzes. A UK-based quiz will, almost unavoidably, have some bias towards British people, even if the writer tries to avoid it.

I think I’m getting better, at least at being aware of this bias. If I’m writing questions for a day, I’ll more quickly be triggered if I’ve just written five questions in a row about male film stars. I, as a writer, have more responsibility than ever to think of these things.

I’ll finish by just considering the question of responsibility. Does a quiz writer/host have any responsibility to address gender bias? I think so. Quizzes deal in facts, they are meant to be about what is entirely true. In that sense, the content should reflect something a little more than just “what the writer is into” but be something of a reflection of the full scope of the world (never losing sight of the need to suit the crowd and, above all, be fun).

A quiz host also has a small (not to be overstated!) ability to influence what participants know about, what is “worthwhile information”. Within that framework, a quiz which is just male-dominated info or Brit-dominated info can be seen as an opportunity missed, if fairness and equality are things you care about at all.

This is just my take on it. I’d be very interested to hear other people’s viewpoints and experiences, as participants, hosts, viewers, or anything else.






The Hidden Rules

When people come up to me at the end of a quiz I’ve run in order to pay it a kind compliment,  it doesn’t usually extend that much further than “Great quiz”, “That was really fun”, “Clever quiz questions”, “That was tough but we really enjoyed it”, “I’m not normally one for quiz nights but I loved it”, etc …

They don’t tend to say things like “I particularly enjoyed the way you only included two numerical questions in the 4th round” and “That 17 second gap you left between questions 6 and 7 of the final round was pure gold!”

Nor would I expect or want them to. But that’s the part that’s important to me. If a quiz comes over as a great quiz, that’s all that really matters, but how we, as QuizQuizQuiz quizmasters, arrive at delivering a great quiz night is a rather more complex process.

Here are a few of the basics

  • Variety. Switching from subject to subject every question, varying length of question, answer type, giving each round a different style, different pacing, different sounds, different pictures.
  • Speed. Never give people time to think they might be bored. Give them just enough time to be sure they’ve heard and understood every question, just enough time to discuss it, just enough time to enjoy getting it right, then move on. No dead air, no dilly-dallying or shilly-shallying. Move from round to round smoothly. Obviously, allow people time to eat if they need to eat, but even in the break, give them a little quiz-related task (e.g. finish your picture rounds).
  • Clarity. Tell people what’s going to happen next. You don’t have to give them a detailed itinerary, in fact it’s far better not to, but make sure everyone knows exactly what is happening and how the current round works. If you repeat a question clearly and efficiently once or several times at the time of asking it first time around, you won’t have to keep repeating all the way through.
  • Authority. Know your material, that’s the single most important thing I’d tell new quizmasters. If you’ve written the questions, read round them a little. If you haven’t written them, know exactly how to pronounce every word, and make sure you know exactly why the right answer is right and why possible alternatives are wrong.
  • Judgement. Even if you can’t, as such, adapt a quiz on the hoof, get a feel for the participants and how they want to be treated. Some quizzers don’t want to be mollycoddled, they just want the good, tough questions and they want to win. Some crowds need all the help and encouragement they can get.

Most of the effort a quizmaster puts in to making a great quiz night goes unnoticed, or should do. But with experience, a quizmaster developers their own set of unseen rules and guidelines which are all rewarded but just by the simple words “That was a fun quiz” at the end of an evening.



Saying No

During the planning stage of every quiz night we host, we send our client a full questionnaire asking for a range of information on every aspect of the event – we’ve honed it over the years, and we’ve got pretty much everything covered. We want to know as much as possible about who is taking part in our quiz night and why – we want to give every different company/school/charity/party/department/individual exactly the right quiz for them. That’s what we think makes us good at our job.

Another thing that makes us good at our job is that, on any given night, we can adapt. There are way more teams? Fine. You need two extra rounds? Fine. Dinner’s early? No problem. You’ve just told us that there’s a whole team made up of Slovenian tailors? OK, we can make that work.

We can change, we can adapt, our attitude is never “this is the only way we do it and we’ve got to stick to that” or “sorry, that’s more than my job’s worth …”

but …

There is a fine art to saying no … sometimes …

That’s why we have the questionnaire. We, as quiz experts, people who have run thousands of successful quiz nights, want to know what you want from your event, whether its team building, networking, fundraising or just a good drinking session punctuated with a few questions, and we’ll help you to make that as good as we can. Through back and forth before the quiz, we’ll iron out any logistical issues, any ideas that may be impractical, we’ll be set up and ready to go.

And, on the night, we can certainly be flexible, but our quiz masters know that there is a point where it is better to, as politely as possible, say no. If everything is set, there are five minutes to go until the quiz, and someone of uncertain seniority approaches us to tell us that there must be jokers, there must be bonus points for funny answers, anyone suspected of using their phones should be summarily ejected from the venue, they want to take the mic(or indeed take the mick) and run a round on squid, we are prepared to say “I’m sorry, we won’t be doing that. It’s not going to help the quiz run well”. It happens very rarely, that’s why we’ve got the questionnaire, and we really are amenable and flexible to a lot of last-minute requests on the night, but I hope our clients trust us that we have an understanding of what will compromise the quality of a quiz.

So, yes, strange as it may sound, sometimes the very best thing we can do on a quiz night is say no.

World of Quiz

Quizzes seem to be everywhere at the moment. There’s a new show I’ve seen advertised on Sky (I haven’t watched it, I confess) called Quiz Nights, which seems to take a structured look at pub quiz nights around the country, there are the ever-intensifying knockout stages of UC and OC on a Monday evening for a small but significant demographic to get excited about, there’s the chap from The Apprentice introducing a larger demographic to the very notion that a quiz company is an actual thing that exists (We briefly considered changing our slogan to ‘QuizQuizQuiz: it’s a thing’ as a consequence – catchy, eh?), and, of course, there’s my day-to-day working existence, which gives me the false impression that everything, everywhere is about quizzes … so maybe quizzes aren’t everywhere at the moment …

But … there is a big and expanding world of quiz, isn’t there? In the nine years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen more and more quiz companies springing up, more and more people who are interested and have some background understanding of what I do, more and more subscribers to the famous QuizQuizQuiz Friday Quiz, and, if I’m not mistaken, more and more TV shows where the quiz itself is the essence, rather than the prize or the catchphrases.

Here at QuizQuizQuiz, we try to stay across the whole world of quiz as best as we can. Obviously, we’ve got our particular areas when it comes to the cold hard business of it all. We run corporate quizzes, event quizzes, quizzes for limited groups. We write questions … for our own quizzes and for people who pay us to do it. Those are our areas of business and so sometimes we’re entirely focused on them, rather than all the other areas of quizzing e.g. standard pub quiz nights, competitive high-level quizzing, ideas for new quiz show formats, TV quizzing (mainly) etc. That’s not to say that members of our team don’t partake of all the above or that we’re against going into those worlds, it’s just that, for the most part, we concentrate on our core business.

It’s nice, though, when we do things which cross over into the wider world of quizzing. Nothing I’ve ever done has elicited as much admiration and interest as the mere mention that we contribute questions to Only Connect (indeed, that my name’s in the credits). It’s nice sometimes to be asked to assist with other people’s ideas for TV quizzes or major quiz events, whether in a small or large way. Over time, we’ve built up a pretty good range of experience and expertise. I think we know pretty well what makes a good quiz, and that knowledge is transferable across a range of contexts.

It is a big world, quizzing. Sometimes I’ll be surprised to hear about companies or events that I never knew existed. Often, I’ll come across new shows, new ideas, new players in the game.

Quizzing occupies a slightly awkward place, though, where it’s not really looked upon seriously by the wider world as a sport, or as an art form, or expected to be a major commercial enterprise. It’s not that far away from being all three. Let it be what it is, many would say – a diversion, a once a month pleasure with a few pints, a once-a-week half hour shouting at the TV. “Trivia?” That’s the word, spoken with gentle contempt by some hard-working professional that wounds me most when I say what I do for a living. Well, not to me, no, quizzing’s not trivial.

Don’t ask us this question

Please don’t ask us for a male QuizMaster. Or a female one. Or a fat one. Or an old one. Or a gay one. Or a non-[enter name of religion here] one. etc. etc.

We’ve written about this before.

We have, perhaps half a dozen times in the last 10+ years that we’ve been running quizzes, been asked “Please can we request a male QuizMaster – we don’t think a female quiz host would be suitable for our event because of [xyz]?”

The problem is, as soon as the question is asked, we are put in a horrible position.

We have to politely and forcefully explain that this isn’t appropriate.

And we have to politely and forcefully explain that this isn’t how we work. All our QuizMasters are highly trained professionals, and their attributes other than how good they are at being a QuizMaster are irrelevant – we allocate our QuizMasters to quizzes according to a blend of, amongst other things, experience vs event complexity, client relationships with QuizMasters, subject matter compatibility and individual availability.

It’s our job to make sure our events are superb, and we hope our clients will trust us to get this right – and we do: our client approval and rebooking rate is as close to perfect as we think is achievable in this kind of industry.

Back to the main topic: once we have been asked for a male QuizMaster, it is difficult for us. We could just say “Sorry, with that question we cannot do business with you.” Maybe we should. But we are a small business, and we generally need to be able to ride difficult situations if we can. So, if we then persuade you to retract the request, do we then send you a male QM anyway? Or a female one to prove you wrong?

Or what if your fears about having a female QM are because you are worried your group can’t be trusted to behave and will cross a line of banter into unacceptability and potential misogyny or harassment? If the group is so awful/sexist then we shouldn’t really be sending anyone. But let’s say we do. Then what will happen? More than likely everything will be great, our QM (male or female) will entertain and control the participants really well. But just possibly something bad might happen. Our staff might complain (and we’d always encourage them to speak up if anything at a quiz made them feel uncomfortable, or worse) and get you and everyone in trouble (rightly so). And then where does that put us as an employer having sent female staff (perhaps not just the QM but also one or more female quiz assistants) into a situation which we could have anticipated would be inappropriate (or worse)?

So, please don’t ask. There are many reasons why we operate as we do (i.e. sending the best person to be the host of each quiz). Luckily the reasons explained in this blog post are only a very small part of why we operate this way – the main reasons are to be efficient and excellent in everything we do.

All QuizQuizQuiz QuizMasters are created equal, as long as they are brilliant at their job – and that job includes being able to adapt to vastly different audiences and rabble rousing/crowd control situations in an appropriate way to ensure the event is awesome.

So please don’t ask.

What’s your job?

People love my job. For the eight years I’ve been a professional quiz question writer and quiz master, when I tell people what I do for a living, I can only think of one occasion when it was meant by mild disinterest … “Oh, right … and moving on …” and on all the other 100s of occasion the response has been something like bafflement … “What? That’s an actual job? I didn’t know that job existed!”, or sheer delight “Oh my god, that’s the best job ever” or fierce interest “I love quizzes! What kind of quizzes? Who for? When? What’s your business model? How did you get into it? Can I have a job?”

This is great, of course. It’s lovely to have a conversation starter, something to talk about. There are times I feel more conversational than others, of course, and I’ve often found myself playing it down, knowing that before I can stop it it I may involved in an intricate and lengthy conversation when I’m more in the mood for chillin’. Many’s the time I’ve gone out and then only spoken about my job for the whole evening. But there are worse things. I generally like talking about it, and I enjoy hearing people’s opinions on it. Lots of people love quizzes, and have interesting things to say about them.

Of course, there are chestnuts I hear over and over again – “Where do you get your questions from?” … LIDL … “You must be great to have on a pub quiz team” … Not really, I’m terrible company … “Do you have a specialist subject?” … Wikipedia, the Golden Years … and, of course, the phrase I love/dread to hear “This’ll make a great quiz question …”. I’m not entirely sure that phrase has ever prefaced something that has actually made a great quiz question, but it does often lead me to an odd, esoteric fact which is too obscure for a mainstream quiz but interesting to me in its own right.

Quizzes being more often an amateur than a professional pursuit, there are lots of people determined to instruct me on both the content and format of my quizzes but also our very business structure. Again, though I’m not sure any of this advice has ever resulted in any concrete change, it is, far more often that not, fun and interesting to hear people’s thoughts ideas.

So if you should ever meet me out and about and you should discover my profession, I shall be delighted to encounter your enthusiasm, I shall certainly listen closely to your ideas, and I will do my best not to raise my eyebrows should I hear you say “This’ll make a great quiz question …”

The Hosts with the Most

This blog post is about trained and skilled professionals doing a better job than non-professionals. And specifically about trained and skilled professional QuizMasters doing a better job than people who are not professional quiz masters (even though they may be professionals in something that may appear to be similar).

We run around 250 hosted quizzes per year, most of which are run from start to finish by one of the highly trained QuizQuizQuiz QuizMasters. And we do it very well, we think, and our clients think.

There’s a decent-sized minority of those quizzes (10-15 a year or so) which we don’t run. We prepare the quiz, we are in attendance on the night making sure everything runs to schedule, we play the music and the audio clips, we do the marking, but someone else is on the mic. Often this is a celebrity host, sometimes it is someone from within the company who wants to run the quiz themselves.

Sometimes it’s at the lower end of “celebrity” (someone that quite literally nobody at the quiz has heard of or recognises – i.e. a circuit stand-up comedian), sometimes it’s a really impressive and prestigious star of TV. Whoever it is, almost without exception … no, I’m being overly diplomatic … without exception, it’s not as good as if we run it ourselves. [If you think this is being arrogant then do a quick thought experiment: imagine a stand-up comedian doing his stuff. Then imagine him trying to prepare material for someone else to deliver: someone who has never done stand-up comedy before, someone he has never met, and someone with whom he might get a maximum of half an hour to brief before the gig. You get the idea.]

I said “almost” above because there is one gentleman I’ve helped run a quiz, who really does hold the audience in the palm of his hand, but a) he’s working a crowd from an industry within which he’s a respected, beloved figure and b) he’s run the same quiz with us several years in a row, so he knows how our quizzes work, so he doesn’t need the constant instruction and prompting.

And even then, however good he is, I’d still say the quiz would be better if one of our hosts was running it.

I can hear you saying “You gotta lotta noive, kid, thinkin’ you’re some kinda big shot who runs a classier quiz than all doz celebrities” (in the imaginary slang of mid-20th century American gangsters I envisage you’re speaking). But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything else in the world I’d be better at than these esteemed hosts except running quizzes (and specifically QuizQuizQuiz quiz nights). But, these, yes I do. Because this is what I do, and what my professional QuizMaster colleagues do, often several times a week.

If a client books us, they hopefully realise they’re booking the whole package, they’re booking us because they know about the quality of our quizzes and the way our quizzes work. It’s not just reading out questions, it’s an awful lot more. It’s choosing the questions, adapting the questions, pacing the quiz, adapting the pacing of the quiz, playing the music, getting the sound right, judging the mood, making last minute adjustments, it’s being quick, efficient and thoroughly well-informed and confident in the material. [again, think back to the comedian analogy…you’ve got to believe in and understand your material to be able to sell it to the crowd]

Often, a client who has their own host in mind is surprised when we inform them that will mean a significant rise in the price we charge (not to mention the additional cost of paying a separate host). Surely it’s less work for us? On the contrary, it’s significantly more work for us. More work preparing the quiz in advance, making sure the questions make sense to the quiz master, providing instructions to them, dealing with any feedback, giving them a script for round introductions, going through the quiz with them before the event, whispering into their ear regularly, reminding them of instructions they’ve forgotten to give, little asides which will make a question work better. Also the quiz usually still goes out under our brand name. In a way the additional costs also compensate us for the reality that the quiz will not be as good as a QuizQuizQuiz quiz should be.

I get way more nervous if I’m helping someone run a quiz than if I’m running it myself. For the latter, I turn up, do my job, and I’m in control. If I make a mistake, I can make a joke of it whilst still retaining complete control. I know how to deal with every eventuality.

So much more can go wrong if someone outside our company is running the quiz, and it’s our reputation that suffers.

How many ways is the quiz better if we run it ourselves? Too many to list. Here are a few. It’s adaptable, in terms of subject matter, rounds and difficulty levels. Every question is understood and treated with enthusiasm and never tossed away as if it is doesn’t matter. Answers can be given out with maximum effect: if there’s a reaction to be had, we will get it. There isn’t someone whispering in the host’s ear all night. There are no awkward silences. Every opportunity to inject energy, entertainment and fun into the quiz can and will be taken. The QuizMaster will not start flagging after the first hour (there aren’t many celebs or stand-up comedian who are used to performing at full energy for 2-3 hours single-handedly – it takes a lot of practice and training to be able to keep it up for that long, as it were) Need I go on?

Like I say, this is a notable minority of our quizzes, and we always make it work, and make it good, and often the guest hosts are really good, engaging, smart, adaptable and charismatic. It’s often a real pleasure to see them getting the hang of how to make a quiz work really well, and gaining confidence in the whole thing as the evening progresses.

But there’s not one quiz which any of our quiz “hand-holders” leaves and doesn’t think “I wish I’d run that. It would have been much better.” And since we are obsessed about running truly outstanding high quality quiz nights, this makes us a little bit sad from time-to-time – sad for our clients who have made a decision (for one reason or another) that means they will not have the best possible quiz night.

The Feel of a Quiz

I’ll probably return to the issue of Minor Quiz Night Complications soon (there are still a couple I’d like to get my teeth into), but while it’s still in my mind, I’d like to write about the somewhat nebulous notions of the “feel” and “rhythm” of a quiz.

Funnily enough, the idea came to me when I was watching film critic Mark Kermode do his weekly blog on the BBC website. It’s usually pretty interesting and the subject matter is varied, but every week it’s somehow exactly the same. His phrasing is the same, his mannerisms are the same, the order, the rhythm, the way he delivers it is always the same. Not a bad thing at all. He probably doesn’t realise he’s doing it, it’s just the pattern he needs to fall into to be able to talk smoothly to camera for five minutes.

Quiz masters have to talk smoothly for upwards of two hours. Sure, we know what we’re going to say, we can make reference to our questions on screen or paper so it’s anything but one long ad lib, but still it’s a long time to be up front with a microphone attempting to maintain complete control of a room and ensuring everyone knows what they’re doing and is having a nice time.

To start with (I started as a quiz master almost 8 years ago) it’s a trip into the unknown. You know what you’re going to ask, but you don’t know how people are going to respond and you don’t know what you’re going to say in between and you don’t know how you’re going to get anyone to do anything. But gradually, as you run more and more quiz nights, you develop a patter, a patter you’re confident in, that comes naturally and unknowingly, and you develop a rhythm, a rhythm which sometimes has more control of you than vice versa.

To some extent, with me, it can be a bit overpowering. Someone might come up to me at the end of a long quiz night and say how well run it was and how much they enjoyed it and while I’m grateful for the praise, if I felt I lost the rhythm, my disappointment will override any satisfaction. It’s the little things. I hate to leave too long between questions, I don’t like to have to repeat questions too many times, any kind of silence (dead air) is anathema.

To the participants, they may not pick up on any of this consciously, but years of experience helps a quiz master to gauge a room, to know that the loss of rhythm will mean participants will be thinking things like “Nice quiz, but when’s my train home”, “Who’s playing in the Champions League tonight?”, “I’m really stupid, I’m no good at quizzes” etc. If I can run the quiz just right, with my flow and my pattern, I feel I can keep those thoughts at bay.

You know what it can be like when you see a stand-up comedian or a band? There’s the big start, the great gags and the roar of laughter, the rush of adrenaline. But then, 10 minutes later (if it’s not a comedian of the highest order) the momentum drops and the chemical comedown can be really crushing. Likewise a gig where a band plays a couple of rather dull slow ones and tunes up interminably in between. In a quiz, we don’t necessarily deal in such large surges of adrenaline, but we just want to keep the right feelings bubbling along.

It’s not like every quiz is the same. Far from it. Being an itinerant quiz master who works for the corporate dollar, every quiz is very different in every way. The venue is different (with the accompanying sound challenges), every crowd is different, the rounds I run change from quiz to quiz, the questions change, the length is different, the helper is different, the prizes are different.

But it’s my rhythm, my feel for the quiz, which allows me to deal (hopefully) seamlessly with those differences.

What am I talking about? What I say at the start, how I structure the questions, the breaks in speech, the time between questions, the hand gestures, the length of musical clips, the way I deal with enquiries, all those things and no doubt plenty more which are even more subsconscious.

From both sides of the fence, do you know what I mean? As a quiz master, are you aware of your own rhythm? And, as an experience quizgoer, can you notice when the quiz master’s “lost it”, when the atmosphere in the room just changes imperceptibly from pro-quiz to indifferent?



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.


How do you like your Quiz Master?

Every now and then, we have to deal with an enquiry which specifically requests that the quiz host is not a woman. To which we are prone to reply “Certainly, sir/madam. Are there any other types of quiz master you’d like to discriminate against? Jewish, perhaps? Muslim? Disabled? Black? Gay?” Well, no, we don’t say that (but we do think that).  We’re don’t want to be quite so provocative, but, suffice to say, we are not all together impressed by the absurdity of the request.

Is there anything which makes men better at running quizzes than women? Short answer. No, there isn’t. Obviously.

We’ve been told that “We went to a quiz run by a woman once, and it was rubbish” – but that will be because she was a rubbish quiz master and/or had rubbish quiz questions (but certainly wouldn’t have been one of our quiz masters), not because she was a woman.I’m sure you can remember a rubbish quiz you’ve been to run by a man – and that was because he was a rubbish quiz master, possibly with rubbish quiz questions, not because he was a man.

Two of our busiest and best quiz hosts are women. Suffice to say, no one’s ever complained after the event about the gender of their host.

So, where does the mindset of the enquiry come from? Generally, we find that people making the request think a woman won’t have the authority to control a room full of men. Utter nonsense. Perhaps there is a certain cliche based on the traditional Master of Ceremonies role based on a large hairy man belting out instructions. Don’t worry, we do also have large hairy men, we have baldy men, beardy men, ginger men, all manner of men. None of these factors make them good quiz masters – good quiz knowledge, good humour, a calm, authoritative manner, good training, and good material make a good quiz master.

Maybe the idea comes from the same outdated notion that women don’t make good comedians

Maybe from the recently proposed daftness manifesting as cold hard fact that women are no good at mental games

…which has been splendidly rebutted by one of Britain’s finest poker players/quiz hosts

So, to finish this post/rant, we don’t have much time for requests that the quiz host is not a woman/man or anything else. If this is your request, please a) think twice about your request b) if you have a genuine, non-discriminatory, non-prejudiced reason for the request make sure you explain it to us (could be interesting…and we are open-minded)  c) be prepared for us to try to talk a little common sense into you and d) be aware that you request may potentially be illegal (can you imagine refusing to be operated on by a surgeon who was a woman, or refusing to be driven in a bus by a woman, or indeed being looked over for a job because you were a woman…)