Creativity – perhaps as overused and meaningless a term these days as “interactive”, “passionate” or “110%”. I remember, for one of the first big question-writing projects I worked on for QuizQuizQuiz, shuffling with my colleague into the imposing offices of a large multinational firm who was our client, and being introduced to the various serious and important people there as “the creative” … I’m the creative, am I? If only I’d known …

It can vary how much creativity this job involves. If I read in the news that Leicester City have won the Premier League (I know, a ridiculous thought, but just as an example …), and then write the question “Who won the English Premier League in 2015-16?”, I accept that is not the very height of creative endeavour. Plenty of question writing is like that. You see simple facts and you package them into questions. In particular, this is the case with high-volume multiple choice, multi-level question writing, against a deadline.

We’ve had to write 20,000 Multiple Choice questions from scratch in a couple of months, with a very tight word limit on each question. There is not much room for anything but the barest form of creativity. But it’s still possible to get some satisfaction and show a little flair, usually in wrong answer options on easy questions. I think my favourite was “What follows this line in the Meredith Brooks song ‘Bitch?’ – “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover …”? to which one of the options was “My name’s Mitch, I’m your brother” … Well, you get your fun where you can.

Thus a lot of writing feels just as much reactive as creative. You take something that already exists and just reshape it. I try very hard not to use other people’s quiz questions. I’ve written before about how I get a certain bittersweet tang from seeing a really fine quiz question, knowing that it is not something that I will have the opportunity to think of myself. Indeed, I can’t use it. But I think it is acceptable to bank the facts in the question, and reshape it, a little while later, into something a bit different. If you couldn’t create quiz material from the same sources that other people create it  from, well, we’d all be done for.

We’ve been doing quite a lot of writing for TV in the last few years, and that certainly has plenty of scope for a satisfying creative process, be it trying to put together Hives for Hive Minds,  Only Connect sequences and connections (after 11 series, I sometimes think it’s amazing that we and the other writers are still able to come up with new material and, believe me, this requires digging deep into the well of resourcefulness and creativity) or, on The Code, nice sets of 3 answer/questions. We threw a few Easter eggs into The Code, little rhyming sequences or phrases, I spent a lot of time coming up with little nuggets of joy which only a few people spotted, but that’s part of the fun of it.

A huge amount of work can go into things which are still, at the end of the day, only quiz questions or quiz rounds. They’re not going to win any awards. But there is sometimes, dare I say it, a little of the rigour and discipline of poetry in writing a quiz round.

At our pub quiz, we used to have a round called Follow On (where each answer has one letter more than the previous) and another round called Blitz (30 quickfire questions, some of which were themed). For Christmas, we decided to write a Christmas-themed 30 question round where each answer was one letter longer than the previous answer, from 1 to 30. Frankly, I still consider it my finest hour … well, not hour, actually, but a week of writing … and five minutes of participation.

So, creativity, yes, I suppose this is a creative job. There have been many times down the years when we’ve had the opportunity to use a bit of imagination in our work. Anyone writing or running a quiz can mix it up, try new formats, be clever without being confusing. It should never become boring or a chore. We’re passionate about giving 110% to interactive, creative quizzery …

The best thing at a quiz

I’ve been asking myself – What is the most enjoyable and best sensation for a quiz master at a quiz night?

To me, it is the experience of subverting expectation, of surprising people, of making people feel good about something they didn’t think they would feel good about.

It struck me this can happen on several levels, particularly at a corporate quiz, where the participants are not necessarily experienced and enthusiastic quizzers.

Firstly, people often come into the room simply not looking forward to the quiz. They are there as a work obligation. If you can succeed in giving them a good time, showing them quiz nights can be fun, that is great.

Secondly, a given round might be off-putting to people, whether it’s a single-topic round (eg Sport) or a  more general round with a certain structure/set of rules. Sometimes I’m explaining the rules of a round to people, and some of them look a little confused, and then it’s great when the round is a real hit.

Thirdly, a question can seem quite complex to people to start with, and you can see a few nonplussed faces, before suddenly, as they think about it, they realise it’s not so impenetrable, and their faces light up.

And fourthly, you can send people the wrong way when giving out the answer. It’s a bit of basic trick sometimes (eg … “Bristol (boooo) ……. is the wrong answer, Bath is the correct answer” (hurray)) but there are various ways of doing this in a fun, original way.

This way of turning people around is sometimes a necessity (eg in the first example given, where you’re dealing with an apathetic or antipathetic crowd) but often it’s actually part of the risk-taking involved in a really good quiz.

It’s fun to risk briefly annoying or confusing people to bring them out the other side – that’s the essence of a really good quiz. It’s why Only Connect has become so popular, why people like riddles etc.

Experience as a quiz master tells you when you need to play it a little safer, when you need to keep things as clear and straightforward as possible, when the crowd will remain suspicious all the way through but you can at least give them an enjoyable, (not too terrible!) time.

But the best quizzes definitely involve a little bit of subversion and a little bit of risk.



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.