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.






Too True?

Just a quick thought.

Can you put too much effort into making sure a question satisfies everyone in its lack of ambiguity?

People want quiz questions to be perfectly clear with perfectly unambiguous answers, and rightly so, but it can sometimes be a little muddier than that.

Just as an example, if you watch Only Connect, you’ll notice that sometimes when teams give an answer Victoria Coren Mitchell asks them to explain why they’ve given their answer, and either accepts or doesn’t. They haven’t given the expected answer, but they have found a valid sequence or connection or at leas their own way to explain it (sometimes more specific or less so than envisaged). It doesn’t happen very often, but OC is perhaps more likely to have that issue than a standard quiz, perhaps, and requires everyone involved to be very much on their toes to keep up with the quick minds of the contestants.

But even in a standard quiz, whether hosted by a quiz master or on the page of a book or magazine or on a website or in an app, a question can be technically sound but people might still find what they think is reasonable cause for alternative answers.

I’m not talking about faulty questions really, or those which are poorly phrased.

There are different cases –

1. a question where the participant has a slightly different understanding of what the terms on the question mean, and by their terms, they have a different answer … an example might be something like the use of World Cup Finals or World Cup in a question – people might misunderstand what those terms mean.

2. a question might be technically correct but actually be too complex, so that most of what is in the question points to a certain answer, but there is a little detail which means that is not the right answer. It might be deemed a little unfair or tricksy – an example might be: “What film did this actor make with this director, in which he played this superhero opposite this actress, in 2002?” … when every detail might point to one answer except the year (there being two such films made in different years).

So, in each case the quiz master can reasonably enough say “No, sorry, your answer is wrong, the question is right and you’ve misunderstood it or not listened closely enough …”

Of course it always ought to be possible to add in plenty of wording and definitions – but where do you stop? Where do you draw the line? Is it worth the effort not to cover any eventuality, not to have to deal with a query?

It would seem that the obvious answer is “Yes” in most cases, but as a question writer, brevity, clarity and the form of the question are also very important, and sometimes you can get bogged down with caveats. So sometimes you take a judgement call to go for brevity and be armed with the facts for clarification. Or sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and bin a question because you can’t narrow it down sensibly enough. The key is to be aware of what you are doing.

It is always helpful for the quiz host (whether at a pub quiz or at a corporate quiz night or on a TV show) to have the facts at hand to put anyone straight if they are a little befuddled. It often actually enhances the host’s authority (as it does, for example, that of Victoria Coren Mitchell on Only Connect) to be able to say e.g. Interesting, but in fact THIS was in THIS COUNTRY, not THAT COUNTRY, so close but no cigar …”

So, for what it’s worth, I think the answer is “be fair and be armed with the facts”.

Reads like a rather good slogan …


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.


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 …

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!)


Water Displacement

Just a very brief blog about one insignificant question, but hopefully a little insight into the thought processes of someone trying to constantly come up with good quiz questions.

There’s a squeaky door in my house. That’s where I got the idea for this. I remembered, as the door squeaked, that I wrote a question about four years ago asking “What does the WD in WD40 stand for?” The question has, to my knowledge, never been used.

For all these years, it’s sat quite near the top of the huge excel spreadsheet I keep of potential QuizQuizQuiz Friday Quiz questions, many times for my eyes to pass over it, consider it, then go “Nah, not this week”. It was in our database for Corporate Quizzes for  a couple of years but I don’t believe it was ever used. It is a question that has truly not made the grade.

Why not? Although we’re justifiably proud of the Friday Quiz and effort and thought is put into it every week, it would be untrue, I admit, to claim that every question in its seven-year history has been a top-quality thriller. There has been the odd bit of filler, and yet WD40 has never been deemed up to the job.

What’s wrong with it? It has some hallmarks of a good question. Word origin questions are usually very well received. And questions about the everyday are often very popular, questions about things which are everywhere and nowhere. Everyone uses WD40, probably very few people know what it means – the best one can hope for in that circumstance is that response of “aah, I’m surprised I didn’t know that, you learn something new everyday”. But I just don’t think it would get that response. It would get “Meh, who cares …”. I think “displacement” is somehow too dull and disconnected a word, it’s unsatisfactorily hard to work out. It would be the dampest of damp squibs. I think … many times I’ve been tempted to think I might be wrong, and that it might be a surprise hit. That’s the thing …we don’t always know. Sometimes questions we think will be great don’t work, and sometimes seemingly dull, nondescript questions get an enthusiastic response.

If I’m wrong about this one, let me know. If you’re there, going “Wow, I use WD-40 all the time and I’d never considered what it stood for. Thanks, QuizQuizQuiz. The fact that it’s so named because it was the 40th attempt to make a formula for Water Displacement is one of the great hidden gems of the quiz world”, well, more fool me.

Of course, any life the question might have had I’ve surely killed now.

Missing a trick

There’s a fine line between a tricky question and a trick question sometimes.

Some quiz masters may be happy to write trick questions, but I try to avoid them if I can. It can be a little bit of a grey area sometimes, though.

There are various negative reactions a question/round/quiz might get. Here are a few –

– this is boring
– ghastly celebrity/soap tittle-tattle
– how could we be expected to know that?
– I wasn’t even born then
– oh, how clever-clever
– this is frustratingly hard
– this is unchallengingly easy
– this is for an unfairly specific and exclusive audience which doesn’t include me
– yuk, sport
– yuk, any other subject

As a quiz master, you certainly don’t mind some kinds of “negative” reactions – you don’t mind that fizzle of “damn, you fiend, you fooled me there” or “oh, how could i have missed that, I hate myself”, but what you don’t want is “hmph, that’s silly and unfair”.

Where’s the distinction between tricky (perhaps even tricksy) and trick questions? Tricky/tricksy questions can be very satisfactory for the quiz master, create enormous joy for the teams that got them right and a wry smile from those that get them wrong.  They’re a great part of a great quiz. It can’t be helped if sometimes some players don’t realise they haven’t, as such, been fooled, they’ve just been pleasantly outwitted. What’s a nice example?

Which 1972 Olympic gold medallist’s wedding was watched on TV the next year by a global audience of 100 million people?

90% of teams will be very pleased with themselves and put Princess Anne.

When they hear that the answer is Mark Phillips (an Olympic gold medallist, unlike his former wife) most let out a a phhh, a screech of disappointment even, but enjoy the question. Every now and then, someone will say “hmmph, that’s a trick”.

But it’s not a trick. All the facts are there in the question. Princess Anne is an altogether wrong answer. She is not an Olympic gold medallist.

A “trick” question … an unfair trick? Well, I suppose I’d define it as something where you can’t really fault the thinking of the players in their answer, but they are wrong on a technicality. A carefully worded question can eliminate those technicalities.

Here’s one people might have different opinions on:

What is the only English city whose name begins with the letter H?

Hereford is the answer. But Hull is what a lot of people put. But Hull is wrong, because the city is officially called Kingston upon Hull. Fine. It’s a trick of sorts. Plenty of people would be satisfied to miss that trick, and accept the answer. But some might say “look, everyone calls it Hull, it’s a city, that’s not really fair” …

I’m inclined to agree, or at least don’t want to court that disgruntlement. So, I might make the question ‘What is the only English city whose official name begins with the letter H?’. Once I’ve got the word “official” in, I wouldn’t have sympathy for any carping.

People have different views on this. Different quiz masters are sticklers for different things. I like tricky questions, and indeed a few tricksy questions, but I try to avoid trick questions if I can.

What are Good Subjects for Quiz Questions?

I’m not particularly going to write in this post about what actually makes a good question. I’ve done that plenty of times before. This is more about how some topics might lend themselves better to quizzes than others, how sometimes people might think they want a quiz on a particular topic, but they’d be better advised to reconsider.

This is based to some extent on personal experience, what I find it easy to write about and what the groups of people I ask questions to and provide questions for respond well to. There are people who’d instinctively disagree with what I’m going to say, and there may also be people whose experience is very different from mine.

An obvious first thing to say might be that a good question subject is what the people answering are interested in. This is mostly true, to the extent that it probably shouldn’t be a completely boring turn-off. But you can still have topics that don’t work, even if the participants are knowledgeable about and interested in that subject.

A topic shouldn’t be too narrow and esoteric [when i say “shouldn’t” in this context, I don’t mean you can’t have a good question, even a good round, about absolutely anything, if it’s well written, but I’m just talking about percentages really], it shouldn’t be something that wouldn’t be of wide interest to quite a large number of people.

I’m probably trying to find a polite way to say it shouldn’t be about dry, boring topics in the world of work. I’ve written in more detail about not having work-related questions at a work quiz, but “your business” is a good start for topics that don’t make good quiz questions.

OK, I’ve got that out of the way. What about the classic subjects? Let’s go through them in terms of Trivial Pursuit pies …

Entertainment – basically this is the backbone of a lot of quizzes, and lends itself well to questions. It’s likely to be of interest, in some way, to most people, it can make good use of images and sounds, it has scope for dry facts and gossip, there are lots of records kept, awards, things which are indisputable.

Sport – up to a point the same, but you have to be careful about a) the number of people that loathe sport and no really nothing about it and b) just how wide it is, just how many sports there are. But it has so many statistics, most of which are verifiable, and lots of “trivia” attached to it. For the right audience, it lends itself very easily to question writing.

Arts and Literature – can be good, but statistics and facts are less well kept. Much of the most well known art and literature comes from a time before records were very accurately kept. Also, people tend to know less than they think they do about these subjects (watch Pointless for proof of this!). Also, they are subjects with such depth, that it’s quite hard to write entirely satisfactory questions about them – the interesting aspects of great books are not necessarily the facts and the figures, the bits that anyone might know.

History – basically good. It is unchanging, it is fact based – history is, in some ways, the very essence of quizzes. Of course, has to be well judged for the audience.

Geography – also good, but a bit more subject to change and more open to dispute when it comes to the great wide world of nature … which brings us to

Science and Nature – Now, my caveat is that this is not my natural subject, but I do find that Nature, in particular, is a difficult subject to write about. It is a subject people enjoy and are interested in, but does not lend itself to verifiable facts. Again, if you want proof, go to different reputable “Wildlife” websites, eg National Geographic and Discovery, and see whether their “average heights” “average weights” etc for various animals are the same. Species and categorys are disputable and subject to change all the time.You can be on dodgy ground writing questions about this topic.

Probably this all seems very sweeping, and does betray my natural inclinations. There is no real limit on what can make for a good quiz, if the writing is skilled enough, but my experience does tell me that some subjects are more equal than others.

Levels of Questions

This week, as most weeks, I was doing some question writing. I tend to have a few concurrent projects to work on, whether writing general stock for our hosted corporate quizzes or specifically for one special event, writing for a game we’ve been hired to provide questions for, or for a TV show.

Down the years, there have been 100s of projects and lots of different styles and target audiences for questions, which require shifts in focus and mindset. Few are more pronounced than one I experienced this week, though, when, on the same day, I went from coming up with the ideas for the fiendishly difficult BBC Quiz Show ‘Only Connect’ to writing short Buzzer questions for a quiz for Year 5 and 6 school pupils.

Every question is its own challenge to be addressed seriously, but it would be a little disingenuous to say that each question is as hard to write as the next. From germination to fruition, an ‘Only Connect’ question might well be several hours of work, might go through several stages, might need some serious research and brain power to get it just right. That  is not true of a question like “What is the capital of Spain?” which may suffice as a buzzer question for children.

Each question ought to have a home for whatever its level of complexity and/or difficulty. It is not quite true that there is no place for banal, facile questions, which is a view some quiz fans/quiz writers have. There is a place for such questions, in quiz machines, in buzzer rounds, as confidence-boosters in quizzes where teams are of a relatively low standard and no one seems all that keen on thinking very hard. In itself, such a question is obviously less satisfying to write than a beautifully constructed gem with a satisfying answer which makes people either go “Yesssss!!” or “Oh, of course. Damn” but putting together a round or sub-category which makes good use of simple questions and ends up being fair and enjoyable for its target audience is not to be sniffed at.

I find now, as I’ve always found, that my natural inclination is to write challenging but not impossible questions. That’s probably how most good question writers see it. So, if I’m charged with writing, say, 500 Multiple Choice questions for a specific project on a specific topic, equally dispersed between Easy, Medium and Hard, the chances are that, when I look back on the first 200 or so and give them a level, I’ll have written too many “Mediums” and I’ll have to consciously weight the next 300 more towards “Easy” and “Hard”.

The right levels can be hard to find sometimes. Both when writing questions for an unseen audience or when delivering a corporate pub quiz night for a particular group in front of you, you can initially find their knowledge base a little obscure and unexpected. I remember doing a quiz for young people where the first question was something like “Conkers come from which tree”? to be met by looks of what I thought was general bafflement. I really had to think on the spot about how to make this quiz work. The same group, I recall, were unusually strong on sport and recent politics.

I can’t always presume I find the level perfectly, but I’ve got pretty good at it, over 8+ years of writing questions for various groups and audiences all over the world. If someone tells me I’ve got the level of a question wrong, I might take a while to persuade, but I can be persuaded. I certainly have weaknesses. I don’t know if other question writers find this, but there are times when I really “want” the quizzers to know more about the subjects which are of particular interest  to me. I want my odd question about Tom Waits or mid-90s indie to go down well (they don’t). I want people to be led towards the correct answer on the slightly obscure classical reference (they sometimes are, hurray!)

But for the most part I’ve learnt to quell that instinct. I’m a pretty good judge of what people know, mainly through practice rather than some great underlying sixth sense, so hopefully those Year 5 pupils will have a good, fair buzzer round, and hopefully there’ll be some good questions of mine coming up on ‘Only Connect’…

Culture Clash

I’m an avid viewer of ‘University Challenge’ but there’s something that always bothers me about it. It’s obviously a difficult quiz show with subject matters which reflect academia – that’s fine. It’s what the contestants are there for and it’s what the viewers watch it for.

But what bothers me is that, in the early rounds, the once-a-show music question might be either something to do with classical music or pop music, but when it comes to the later rounds it is always, without fail unless anyone can contradict me on this, on classical music. As if they’re throwing the stupid ones a bone early on, but when it gets serious, getting on with the proper stuff. I’d much rather there was no popular music at all than that it’s quite clearly treated as something “beneath”.

I fear this is reflected in Paxman’s own attitude whenever something from the “low-culture” world enters the realm. The superciliousness which he is – often unjustly – famed for enters his voice. “How ridiculous of you to know that!” he seems to say (sometimes he doesn’t seem to say it, he just says it …). “How ridiculous that anyone bothers to know that.” The danger, for him, is that this blanket approach to the low arts can make him look a bit silly – I remember a question about Canadian singers where he took the same “what nonsense!” approach to a team identifying songs by Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain and Joni Mitchell. It doesn’t take a degree in pop music and a slavish devotion to the greatness of late 60s/early 70s singer-songwriters to know that there are vastly different degrees of “nonsense” within that question. He ended up just looking a little ignorant.

Perhaps it reflects his own tastes and cultural perspective, perhaps it’s the show’s party line. It’s a highbrow show for highbrow people, fine. That’s its USP. But, both in my professional life and my personal life,  I find the persistence of that cultural divide pretty insidious.

As a quiz master, it works both ways. First of all, to fend off any claims of hypocrisy, those who’ve ever been to a QuizQuizQuiz quiz might know we often include a round called Culture Clash where, yes, we differentiate between “High” and “Low” Culture. We say there’s something for everyone,  a bit about books, art, and a bit about film and TV. I’d like to claim that’s a bold subversion and a lesson in breaking down the walls of elitism but, nah, it’s just a good round format where we try not to exclude anyone, where there’s an opportunity for a good range of questions.

If we do that round, we make it fair. We make it suit the crowd. It might be weighted more one way or another depending on who it’s for, but, either way, it’s generally about well-known books, well-known artists, well-known TV  shows, well-known films – interesting facts and quirky questions within that.

So it can be frustrating when the eyes roll when I say “Now a question about classical music” or, likewise, “Which TV show …”. I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing which’ll make a quiz master grit their teeth so much as the phrases “I wasn’t even born then” or “I don’t know anything about celebrities/pop music/TV”.

The thing is anything can be good and anything can, likewise, be worth knowing. Culturally speaking, if I live up to that credo, it means saying that the possibility of there being a good song by Westlife exists or the possibility of a good film by Michael Bay or a good TV show featuring Amanda Holden. It is possible, it might even already be real … might not … People might describe this as a form of (pop) cultural relativism.

Likewise, it follows that within each topic is something worth knowing. Our job as question writers is to find the thing worth knowing, or at least worth thinking about, within the topic, but the responsibility of the quizzer, as I see it, is to at least not dismiss the subject out of hand before it’s begun. I’ve seen people scorn questions about everything from sport to celebrity to politics to history to theology to pop music to TV to geography (really, I have! I mean, how do you think geography is beneath you?), and it bugs me.

Trivia’s a funny word, isn’t it? I disapprove of its use when applied to quizzes. Sometimes I tell people I write and run quizzes. “Like, trivia?” they say “No, not trivia, quizzes”. The word trivia is more persistent in America than the UK when applied to quizzes, to the business of knowing stuff in a competitive format.

But the word “trivial” is right there in both countries – that which is trifling, inessential. My “high-culture” background tells me that it’s from the Latin for where three roads meet, i.e that which is appropriate to the street corner, tittle-tattle. But whether is on high culture, low culture, celebrities, Ancient Greek architecture, sport or fashion, I think you’re missing a trick if you treat all or any of it as “trivia”, as vulgar and irrelevant to higher concerns. One day something that you learn  at a quiz may just save your life … or at least save you in an awkward social situation.