The younger generation

I’m almost 35. Not young anymore. Not long since I was young, but not young like the young folks anymore. This is fine. I can’t play football anymore, can’t play cricket without my whole body aching for a week, but it’s fine. It’s not the issue here.

I’m talking about quizzes here. What difference does my age make to my ability to run quizzes? Well, it depends who it’s for, doesn’t it? We run quizzes for all ages, from Primary School children to venerable pre-rock’n’roll quizzers, but the heaviest weighting is, as it has always been, the mid-to-late twenties. When I started running quizzes for QuizQuizQuiz, I was in my mid-to-late twenties. It was quite rare to be running quizzes for people significantly younger than me. This has changed.

What’s more, we run more and more quizzes for students and interns, people who are nominally adults but really are a whole generation younger than me. Can my quiz master skills cope with this?

First of all, once I hit 33 I didn’t start exclusively listening to opera, watching Ingmar Bergman films and complaining that it’s not like it was in the good old days. I still have relatively “young” tastes, if they were ever young. I’m into pop music (of a sort), modern films, watch things on TV other than ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and hang out on street corners drinking alcopops. So, in a sense, and especially as it’s my actual job, it really shouldn’t be that hard for me to know what works in a quiz for folk a few years younger than me.

But I am noting a few more challenges, as the gap gets wider year by year. I do think it’s particularly marked because there has been the most remarkably accelerated rate of change in media, communication and culture in the, say, 15 year gap between me and the intern quizzer. Just remember, when I left school, hardly anyone was using the internet (I don’t think I’d even heard of it, though I was the kind of kid who thought these computers were just a flash in the pan), there was certainly no facebook or twitter, about 10% of people had a mobile phone, most of us still had 4 (not even 5!) TV channels, Top of the Pops was still a popular show and the way to find out about what was in the charts, I could go on … some of it is trivial, some of it is pretty significant, impacting on the whole way people grow up, what they know, what they like, how they understand the world.

So, what you really want to know is, are the kids any good at quizzing? Yes, pretty good, and in some ways you don’t have to alter that much to get the tone and the content right. I haven’t yet had anyone shouting out “Hey grandad, this is so square …” or whatever the whippersnappers say these days.

There’s obviously a chance of getting it wrong by referencing something they’ve no idea about, whether it’s The Fast Show or Menswear or England putting in a decent performance at a major football tournament, but, actually, that’s pretty straightforwardly avoided if you give it enough thought beforehand. [Don’t get me wrong, it is important to avoid that, important not to think you have a shared cultural background and what you were watching/listening to when you were growing up is the slightest relevant to what’ll be fun for them]. It’s actually the opposite that is more the problem, though – in avoiding stuff that you worry may not be suitable, there may be a tendency to play it safe, make it too easy, even patronise them.

For a start, there’s certainly no particular reason why their general knowledge, geography, history, politics etc won’t be as strong as anyone else’s, or their ability to think quizzily and work out puzzling questions. Indeed, their tendency to drink a little less than the more experienced quizzer can mean their heads are a little clearer for trickier questions.

It’s when it comes to “culture” that it can be trickiest, whether that’s Video Games, TV, Films or particularly Music. Because I don’t know exactly what they know, what they’ve experienced, how they take it all in, and can only work it out approximately, there’s a real danger of asking something which just seems like the simplest, most pointless thing in the world. “Here’s a question about one of those video games you all seem to spend all your time playing.” “Yes, but what you’re asking us is like asking us what is 2+2”. It can be like that if you’re not careful.

And the same applies to pop music – I don’t just know what the big hits were of my era, I know which songs were kind-of hits, tunes you’d remember but might not be too sure who they’re by, and that’s what makes a good question. I know what old bands people my age might know about, too. It takes a fair bit of research and experience to get a music round right for younger people – will they know Frank Sinatra, the Stone Roses, will they know the Strokes, say, whose first album came out when a current university student was about 7? Yes, they know the modern chart-toppers, the songs that are everywhere, but the skill is going a little deeper.

It’s an interesting, and growing, challenge. The gap in age will continue to grow between me and the average corporate quiz participant. As a company, we’ll take on new, possibly younger, quiz masters, every now and then, and we’ll think more and more conscientiously about making sure our round formats and questions are tailored to the audience, whatever their age. Quzzing is certainly not a young man or woman’s game, so I don’t think I’ll have to hang up the spikes just yet – maybe now is a good time to take inspiration from the Rolling Stones and look forward to entertaining the kids of quiz for another four decades.


Levels of Questions

As something of a follow-up to my last post about Corporate and Company Quizzes, I’m going to write a little about the varying levels of difficulty you might find at different quizzes.

This is sparked by recently hearing a view from a pub quiz master that he believed that corporate quizzes are generally much harder than pub quizzes, which, I must say, is not my experience at all.

When we used to write one or two pub quizzes a week, and then use the accumulated pub quizzes as source material for our corporate quizzes, it was definitely true that the difficulty was significantly reduced from pub quiz to corporate. To be fair, this was a particularly strong pub quiz crowd. There were a high number of high quality teams, and we tailored the difficulty to reflect that.

And by and large, that’s what every quiz should do, so it would be slightly inaccurate of me to simply say “Corporate quizzes are easier than pub quizzes” – if I know that a corporate event I’m running is for a number of really good teams, I’ll up the difficulty level, and likewise, I’ve been to some really easy pub quizzes.

Generally, though, my reflection is that, because pub quiz goers are people who have gone somewhere to take part in a quiz, they tend to like quizzes and have some competence in them, whereas a corporate quiz is usually a pretty random assortment of workers who don’t necessarily have any inclination to quiz. Generally, that’s how I find it, and why, in general, pub quizzes are tougher than company quiz events.

Perhaps it’s more interesting to consider easy and difficult questions, and, to expand on that, easy and difficult quizzes, in a few different ways.

Firstly, it is, I think harder to write easy questions than to write difficult questions. To come up with a real gem of an easy question is always a great pleasure. Perhaps what I mean is it’s hardest to write easy questions that aren’t facile. “What’s the capital of Belgium?” OK, that’s not a hard question to write. “What three word phrase connects ‘Bob the Builder’ and Barack Obama?” – still very easy, but a little bit more pleasing to ask and to answer.

I’d tentatively suggest that a pub quiz may contain a few more facile questions – questions about what’s happened recently where all you need is to have read the paper to get it. That’s fine – in the context of any quiz, not everything needs be a beautifully constructed brainteaser.

Too many facile questions are, of course, a real turn-off. One can sometimes see the people that rate themselves at quizzes rolling their eyes if a question is a bit too simple. [Incidentally, a real delight then is the question that appears facile but, without being a trick, trips people up. I have a really good one of those at the moment, where I often see someone scoffing when it’s asked, then getting it wrong – “What year is 100 years after 90 BC?” Think before you join the scoffers …]

It’s not always about easy/difficult anyway, but more about suitable/not suitable to the participants. And then you can ask, which participants? All the participants, or the best, or the worst? What I find is that even very good teams rarely get over 90% in a quiz, even if it is “easy” – the easiness will mean that the less good teams’ scores will improve. A “hard” quiz is likely to mean greater separation, and, for me as a quiz master, that’s not really desirable. As I’ve said various times, I want a range between 60% and 90%. If I get close to that, I’m happy and know that I’ve done a pretty good job in question selection. If it’s 90% to 40%, less so. Then again, if it’s 90% to 80%, say, then I probably will have made the quiz too easy.

So, when should a quiz be hard? Well, rarely, I think. It is necessary, obviously, when a pub quiz has a reputation for being fiendish, of course: when difficulty is its calling card. And, for a corporate event, if we’re told they want it be tricky, well, sure, but even then, I’d use my discretion. I know that I could ask a good set of questions where no team would get more than 50% of them, and most questions would be answered by at least one of the teams…yet they’d still have a better time if I tone it down a bit and they’re getting far more of them right.

Serious quizzers like to be challenged, that’s why they watch shows like ‘University Challenge’ and ‘Only Connect’, but even then, you want to feel you’ve got a chance on the questions. When Paxman’s asked something where no one’s got a clue, it’s a bit of a damp squib.

The truth is, then, perhaps “difficulty” is a bit of a red herring – it’s about suitability of questions, quality of questions, maintaining interest, variation and and about offering a fair challenge.

Do you have a favourite “easy” question?

The Question Database

Whether participating in a quiz, watching a TV quiz show, or just catching sight of a set of quiz questions in any context, I always feel, alongside the sense of admiration, a pang of disappointment when I see a really, really good, clever question. Because I then think, “Damn, I won’t be able to think of that one now. There’s one more in the pot of really outstanding quiz questions which isn’t mine. I might have thought of that question off my own back in a couple of day’s time, but now, if I do, I’ll know that someone else got there first!”

Over the years, I’ve become more and more entrenched in trying to make sure the work we at QuizQuizQuiz produce is entirely our own. We’ve, at various times, used freelance writers, done question swaps, asked for and been sent material by quiz enthusiasts, but increasingly I’ve felt a certain sense of dissatisfaction with that, however good the material is. The fun of the job is coming up with the questions yourself.

Of course, it is a grey area, and no one is going to get sued anytime soon for using a quiz question they’ve previously heard elsewhere. At freshly written pub quizzes up and down the country, multiple question setters have probably come up with almost exactly the same questions as each other, whether because they were scanning the same news sites or because their minds were just working in the same ways.

I’ve had times when I’ve been watching ‘University Challenge’ and a question has been asked which is pretty much exactly the same as one I thought up earlier in the month and thought “Damn, people are going to think I nicked that”. Well, I really do my very best not to nick questions from anywhere, not because I necessarily think there’s all that much wrong with it, but just for the sense of personal satisfaction.

I’ve been at pub quizzes where questions have been used which I know have, one way or another, come from QuizQuizQuiz, either from one of our pub quizzes or, more recently from our weekly Friday Quiz, and, really, I don’t mind at all if it’s just the odd one or two. It’s a compliment.

We generally tried very hard to protect the integrity of our questions early on, so we would turn down requests from clients to see the questions in advance or to be sent the questions after the event (which we still do by and large), but there is a big, big difference between taking a whole quiz without asking and hearing a question/factoid one likes and thinking “I can use that”.

And since we kicked off the Friday Quiz five years ago, really, our questions are out there in the world – if someone really wanted to systematically hoard them for their own purposes, there’s nothing we can do about it. We just hope other quiz enthusiasts take as much pleasure in coming up with their own questions as we do.

Free Christmas Quiz Stuff

We have just launched our Christmas Prize Quiz. You can do it online or use the print-friendly version to test your family and friends.

We will be giving away £50 in Amazon vouchers – and to be in contention for that, you need to submit your answers online before midnight UK time on 6th January.

In addition, we have just released an update to our Free Christmas iPhone app,  QuizQuizQuiz Xmas. It is available on the app store. This contains hundreds of questions with a vaguely festive theme.

And if that isn’t enough for you, you can always get our main iPhone app, simply called QuizQuizQuiz, which has over 6000 questions (this is just in English – if you like to quiz in German, French, Spanish or Italian then you have lots more questions to play) There will be an update of around 3000 questions to this app in the coming weeks. Get QuizQuizQuiz in the app store.

Checking Quiz Questions

Every quiz question needs to be checked, whether the question is for use in our Friday Quiz, our quiz nights or in a question pack we’ve written for an app. Checking quiz questions is about more than just checking the facts (although that is, of course, massively important). This post is mostly about multiple choice quiz questions, and pub quiz night questions, but we have a guest post coming up in the coming weeks from Rob Linham about writing and editing University Challenge-style questions.

1. Factual Accuracy

Getting your facts right is, of course, essential. There is no excuse for not checking facts these days. You can check several facts in several sources in less than a minute if you are quick. Wikipedia is often good enough for checking facts (we’ve written about this before…). You should check facts even if you think, or know, that you know them already. Occasionally you will find an extra bit of information that you weren’t aware of that might influence how you write the question, and very often you will be reminded of other pieces of information that will either help you to make the current question more interesting or give you ideas for future questions.

2. No Ambiguity

Think about your question – could it be misunderstood, or interpreted in another way? Is there some fact of wording that you could include to avoid the misunderstanding. The question has to point unambiguously to the intended answer. There are ways around this if you are struggling – you can put in an extra clue, such as a year, that removes the possibility of another answer being valid.

3. Alternative Answers

Are there any alternative answers? If so, add them to the answers so that if anybody puts them then they can be rewarded for their knowledge. Or you can bring alternative answers into the question to avoid confusion. For example:

“Name the last 4 cities not in Europe or the USA to have hosted the Summer Olympic Games. And don’t write down Moscow – in 1980 they wouldn’t have said they were in Europe, but you could argue it both ways, so Moscow isn’t allowed.”

And thus, a potential source of argument is eliminated.

4. Perfect Spelling and Punctuation

This is less important in questions for a pub quiz master to read out than it is for questions which are to be published on a website or in a game or app. However, it isn’t that difficult to check spelling, and you  may as well get it right. Spelling and punctuation are designed to help a reader know what is going on, and the question writer should try and help the question master!

Here is a big secret tip that nobody I’ve shown it to in the past has known about:

Use Google Docs to check spelling rather than/as well as Microsoft’s spell-checker. Don’t believe me? Try doing a spell-check on this in Microsoft Word:

I was at a dinner party in Cluj, Romania, with Ileana Douglas and Shia LaBoeuf and we were talking about blogs featuring The Wire character Wee-Bay Brice (played by Hassan Jonson) on Tumblr.

Microsoft doesn’t know Cluj, thinks Ileana is correct, thinks LaBoeuf should become Labour, is happy with Wee-Bay and wants Tumblr to become Tumbler.

Paste the same text into Google Docs and it underlines the words that it has issues with, and suggests corrections as follows: Ileana>Illeana (because that is the correct spelling of her name), LaBoeuf >LaBeouf (which is correct – who knew?), Wee-Bay>Wee-Bey (because that is correct), Jonson>Johnson (because that is correct).

In other words, quiz question writers of the world, Google Docs spell check is your friend. Of course it isn’t perfect, but for quiz questions which are typically very heavily loaded with proper names, then it is a great tool for picking up typos even in proper names.

….Since this post is getting a bit long, I’ll postpone the rest for another day, on which I will give you my thoughts on checking quiz questions for: Good Readability, Difficulty, Suitabaility, Context, Format and anything else that comes to mind.

Do you have any tips and tricks for checking quiz questions?

Crucial Quiz Questions

I started at QuizQuizQuiz in 2006, having been hired to be a quiz master and a quiz question writer. Not surprisingly, it was my first professional quizzing job (are there many professional quiz jobs?). I hadn’t written huge numbers of quiz questions before, and, consequently, I had an awful lot of questions bursting to get out of me.

I’d write quiz questions for our two weekly pub quizzes, I’d write special questions for corporate quiz nights, and I’d write them for all manner of quiz writing projects. I’d create the questions, they’d be used, and I wouldn’t worry all that much about it.

We did, of course, keep a question database of our pub quizzes, but I certainly wouldn’t remember any good ones I’d written from week to week. I think it’s pretty likely there are quite a lot of really good pub quiz questions I wrote in those first years which are lost  in cyberspace or in some external hard drive, either in the depths of the quiz database or elsewhere. Even worse, I’m quite sure there are many good questions that crossed my mind, I thought about noting down, then didn’t. No matter, I’d write more.

And I did, I hope. And I don’t think there is a finite number of quiz questions in me. Things will keep happening in the world, so there will still be good questions to be written. But what I will say is that I feel more keenly how rare and important really good quiz questions are, and so I try not to let any pass me by. I not only make a note of any good idea for a question I hear, I make sure I put every question I either write or edit, whether it is ideal for a pub quiz, corporate quiz or multiple choice format, into an easily accessible database. I don’t want to lose a single question. You never know when it might prove useful.

If you’re a quiz question writer, how do you keep a record of everything you’ve written?

And do you make a note when a good idea for a question comes into your head?

QuizQuizQuiz: The App

In 2009, in association with Four Door Lemon, we wrote and released our iPhone app, cleverly titled ‘QuizQuizQuiz’ (we spent millions on focus groups to come up with that).

Without making us rich beyond our wildest dreams, the app was a very pleasing success, making it to the Top 5 on the App Store in the UK and all over Europe. We put a great deal of thought into it and feel it was a cut above the usual quiz apps. If we do another app, we’ll do a few things differently, and there were certainly a few things we’d improve upon, but generally we were very happy with our debut effort.

We made the choice to make it stand out by being a little offbeat, injecting as much humour as we could into it, by having odd categories, a few unexpected question types, etc. Generally, feedback on that was extremely positive. The delights of the App Store comments section meant that we came face-to-face with any objections and negativity. Beside the standard topics, our ‘Infinity’ topic included all manner of random categories, like ‘Biscuits of the 80s’, ‘The Big Lebowski’ and, to the rage of one commenter ‘The Life and Times of Ryan Giggs’ – even a pre-moral purdah Ryan Giggs was too much to bear. Imagine now!

Fair enough, really. Some people will get a quiz app because they want a straight serious set of quiz questions. Well, most people will. Our app had plenty of those, around 5000 questions in total (and that’s just in English: thousands more in French, German, Italian, Spanish), founded in good hard fact and general knowledge. The fact we injected a bit of fun, silliness and eclecticism into the game made it more enjoyable to write, hopefully more enjoyable for most people to play and, we think, more successful.

We may well build a new app very soon. What would be your dream quiz app?

Oh – and do read the blog post by Four Door Lemon about the app: it makes for interesting reading on the economics of a quiz app (or indeed any app).

Write what you know … or don’t

As we’ve been putting together a new database for the start of a new year, I’ve been looking back at some of the questions I’ve written over the years. There are some pretty good quiz questions in there. I can say that with some confidence because they’ve several times elicited a good response from the quiz participants – interest, amusement, even delight. However, what I noticed was that hardly any of those questions I’d written which I’m proud of are on anything resembling one of my “specialist” subjects.

In fact, I think the opposite is true. One should try to avoid writing questions about one’s interests. I speak from bitter experience, of weighing down early quizzes with fascinating facts about Bob Dylan, Scottish indie pop, Greek novels, Anglo-Saxon kings and West Indies cricket of the 1970s. None of these questions have passed the test of time.

Which is not to say that there can’t be good questions about esoteric subjects. It’s more that the expert on that subject will not be the one who finds the nugget of information that makes a good and accessible question. The elitist in us comes to the fore, I think, when we’re on our own turf.

When it comes to subjects we’re a little less sure of, that’s when we’re more likely to take delight in something simple which will transfer itself into a good quiz question. In my opinion, quizzes may be tests of knowledge which the best team should win, but they should be fair tests, with a wide range of subjects but a solid base in what is general knowledge.

However, if anyone should happen to want a quiz all about Belle and Sebastian EPs and Camera Obscura album tracks, I’d be happy to provide it …

Have you ever been to a quiz where you’ve heard the dreaded words (or similar): “Now, the next question is probably too difficult, but if you are a big supporter of Scunthorpe United, like I am, then you’ll love this.”





Born in the 1990s

At a comedy club I regularly attend, the compere will always pick on a young looking chap in the audience, and ask him what year he was born in…inevitably, if he is under 21 and the answer is 1990-something then the whole audience gasps “No way”, “1990! That’s so young!”, “How can someone born in the 1990s be allowed out at night” etc. etc.

It’s a cheap win for the compere, but for quizmasters such gasp inducing youth poses a challenge of its own. These children of the 1990s were foetal, at best, when Thatcher left office. ‘Thundercats’ means very little to them. Even PJ and Duncan means little.

If you go to quizzes from time-to-time (as I assume most of our readers do), then you will almost certainly have had the experience of finding the questions badly out of your knowledge zone. It is one thing to find that there are too many questions on (e.g.) sport or music for your liking, but another thing to find that you are a young person at an “old man quiz” or an older person at a “Radio 1” quiz.

A quiz master/mistress should know his/her audience, and equally you might say that a quiz punter should choose the right sort of quizzes to attend. However, it is always possible to set a quiz that caters to different age groups. At QuizQuizQuiz our quiz masters earn their plaudits by their ability to create an entire quiz in realtime that is perfectly suited for the audience, but here are a few pointers that can help with the age issue. We’ll deal with other demographic issues in future posts.

1. Include some content that very directly addresses a minority age group in the audience. Seems obvious, but I’ve been to plenty of quizzes which have ignored the young / old  contingent. Easy enough to throw on a bit of Buddy Holly or Kings of Leon to keep everyone happy that at least one thing was friendly to them.

2. Put the majority of questions in the middle ground – things that everyone should know, and for which age is irrelevant. This doesn’t mean you have to steer clear of popular culture – some pop culture is pretty much universal, particularly “event” TV / films. A question about The King’s Speech at the moment should do the trick for most age groups.

3. Think a bit laterally for suitable topics. Different age groups will know about different subjects in different ways. Take children’s literature, and specifically Roald Dahl. Almost everyone British (again – dealing with international audiences another time) will be familiar with his children’s books. They will either have read it for themselves when younger which could mean 50 years ago or 5 years ago (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, is from the 1960s), seen a film adaptation, read it to their own children, or simply be aware of it by cultural osmosis, such is the cultural status of the books.

4. Ensure guessability – this is almost always a requirement for a fun and inclusive quiz question. You don’t need multiple choice for this. But many questions can be virtually multiple choice in the way you phrase them.

Here are some sample questions that I think would work at almost any quiz with any age spread, assuming the participants are all (or mostly) British:

1. In ‘The Wizard of Oz’, which one of Dorothy’s three main companions does she encounter first on the Yellow Brick Road from Munchkin Land to The Emerald City? (almost everyone young or old has seen the film and/or read the book, and even those who haven’t will probably be aware of at least one of the companions)

2. On British road signs, what symbol is used to indicate a zoo? (everyone has seen such a sign – can you remember what is on it?)

3. In the Superman movies, what colour is Superman’s belt, when he is in his full saving the world costume? (You barely need to have seen the films. Anyone and everyone will at least have seen a picture of Superman in his garb)

4. Which of your lungs is larger (assuming your organs are fairly normal) – Left or Right? (you can just guess if you like, but with luck you can try and work it out – and everyone should be able to contribute to the thinking process)

5. How many ball boys and ball girls are there on Centre Court at any one time during a match at Wimbledon? (find me a person who has never watched at least 20 minutes at Wimbledon on TV…you might know this from observation, or from knowledge, or you might be able to work it out, or try to visualise based on a match you enjoyed watching.)

Do you have any solid “age-inclusive” questions that you’ve heard or written recently?



Worst Quiz Question Ever

I was going to write about the best quiz questions ever – but I am a little tired, and I think that post requires rather more thought than I am capable of right now. So…instead, what is the worst quiz question ever?

I don’t mean a question that is just plain wrong/out of date (e.g. What is the largest country in Africa? Sudan). Looking for something more than that – collector items…

My personal favourite, that I heard at a quiz in the bustling town of Romford about 9 years ago:

Which celebrity famously came to speak at the Oxford Union? (we actually got it right, because it was a little bit topical at the time, but the correct answer was just one of several equally famous speakers there from the last 6 months, all of whom had received newspaper coverage).

I’ve also had the following question reported to me:

Who, or what, was Eleanor Gray?

Answers to both questions on a postcard…

Any other seriously dodgy questions?