Handling Queries

There’s nothing more annoying, when participating in a quiz, than a set of questions which is riddled with ambiguities, mistakes and unclear instructions. It is the responsibility of a quiz master to make sure everything about the quiz is as free from doubt and irritation as possible – if you do that, the chances are you’ll avoid having to deal with countless queries throughout the night, though sometimes the queries come and have to be dealt with no matter how clear you’ve been, or think you’ve been.

As discussed in a previous post, the bare minimum for a a quiz master is to have read through the questions beforehand, checking pronunciations, making sure he/she is comfortable with the facts, and looking for any inaccuracies. You may not have written the questions, but you do want to make it seem like you have. That doesn’t necessarily mean withering contempt for any wrong answers, a la Paxman on University Challenge, but it may mean giving off little bits of knowledge around the questions and answers. Not too much, just a little.

So, when a query comes in about an answer you’ve given, you’re able to be confident in rebutting it. I asked a question last week about countries in the Commonwealth (I won’t reveal the exact question!), and one member of the team who would go on to win – who were clearly serious quiz buffs – said ‘What about the Falklands?’. I said, “it’s not a country, it’s an Overseas Territory.” He said “but they take part in the Commonwealth Games”. At which point, one may get a little flustered and concede the point, but I was able to say “Yes, but so does the Isle of Man. Mark Cavendish’s 2006 Commonwealth Gold was won representing the Isle of Man”, which satisfied him. Though the facts of the question were never in doubt, sometimes you need that little extra knowledge to satisfy a determined querier.

NB the ambiguity about the word “country” is one of the most common sources of dissent. You should always make sure you say “independent country” or even “UN Member State” otherwise I guarantee you’ll get all kinds of ‘What about Wales?’ type enquiries.

On which point, as well as checking facts, check for any kind of possible ambiguity in the way the question is asked. Another example of this would be, say, “Which cities have hosted the Olympics …?”. Clarifying you mean “Summer Olympics” will save you plenty of bother.

Nevertheless, however much you’ve checked and however clear you think you’ve been, there’s still be a few folk determined to make their point. It is surprising how often people can be extremely convincing in their query, but still be wrong. “What do you mean Pimlico is not an independent country. I was there last week! I had to go through border control”, that kind of thing. It is also surprising how often people think the best way to express this query is to shout it at you while you are speaking to a roomful of people, rather than having a quiet word between rounds. One should generally of course be polite and attempt to clarify and assuage them with facts alone. However, if you can tell you’ve got a good atmosphere going and the crowd are generally on your side, there’s nothing wrong with putting a dissenting voice in its place with a little sarcasm, a little display of superior knowledge. It is, after all, your job in the circumstance to know more, and as long as it’s good natured, tends to get a great response.

Gauging whether any query or complaint is reasonable is key. Sometimes, someone might claim, say, you were talking too fast, or you said something other than what you think you have said. All you have to do is to check against what other teams wrote. I once asked “What’s the next prime number after 90?” – on being told 97, one woman, furiously, said, you said 19, not 90. The fact every other team put an answer above 90 was enough to suggest she might have listened more closely. However, this would be an example of where you should avoid ambiguity by saying “90 – Nine Zero” [I’m pretty sure I did!]

Even then, after all that, there will be the odd query that’ll bamboozle you a little. My best recent example was a question about a recent Hollywood survey where it was revealed that Robert de Niro had died on screen more than any other star. When this was revealed, a man came up and said “We’ve been racking our brains and we can’t think of the films de Niro has died in. What are they?” Now, funnily enough, it wasn’t me who’d conducted said survey of all the Hollywood films ever released, I was taking the survey on trust, but since De Niro is one of my favourite actors, I did say I’d try to think of them, and started scribbling down film titles. I quickly realised I was getting distracted from the rather more important business of running the quiz, shrugged at the man, and put that one down to experience.

One strategy that can work very effectively in ensuring the smooth running of the quiz (if not necessarily in satisfying the person who raised the query) is to make it clear that if the actual outcome of the quiz is affected by the issue then you will go to lengths to resolve it. And if the outcome of the quiz is not affected by the issue, you can usually just give them the benefit of any doubt to keep them happy, and hope that they will check it as thoroughly as you, the quiz master, will when you are next online.

If you run quizzes yourself, how do you deal with queries?

What’s the strangest query you have ever heard at a quiz?

Always read the questions

I’ve been to two pub quizzes in the last week, and at both I’ve experienced a regular irritation: the quiz master not having written the questions (fine – perfectly normal) but not having taken the trouble to read through them to be sure he understood them all first.

As a result, you get a quiz master saying things like “I have no idea what this is about” …or “that’s all it says here I’m afraid”, and this diminishes his authority and has the potential to lessen the enjoyment of the quiz for the participants.

So quiz master tip of the week is: if you haven’t written the questions yourself, then always always read through them beforehand just in case there is anything that you don’t understand. (I have this problem with some modern pop music questions). Any you don’t understand, you can look them up, or even replace them with something you do understand. Doesn’t take more then 10-15 minutes, but can save a lot of pain on the night.

What are your top tips for quiz masters?

A Question of Sport?

Although it’s generally seen as an archetypal subject for quizzes, the most divisive round I run, without question, is the Sport Round. There are many occasions where I avoid including Sport unless it’s specifically asked for, unless the crowd is quite clearly sport-orientated or unless the length of the quiz dictates that there must be.

I’ve actually taken to asking teams whether or not they want a sport round and if there is a clamour against it, I do something else instead, and throw in a bit of sport elsewhere in the quiz. This is what happened at my quiz in Dublin on Wednesday. I asked if they wanted Sport, they said yes, and, to be fair, the standard was extremely high. Just as often, though, when I ask the question, there is a loud chorus of “Noooo”.

So, what is it about Sport which makes it not actually an ideal topic for our quizzes? Especially when so much “trivia” seems to be sport-based, when there are so many statistics and so many stories to get your teeth into.

Well, in a way, that’s part of the problem. There’s just so much of it, so many areas and angles that it can be hard to know where to pitch it. Someone might know a great deal about, say, snooker, cricket and rugby, but be utterly indifferent to other sports. If those sports don’t come up, they’ll feel as left out by the sport round as someone with no interest in sport whatsoever.

And what else? Well, quite frankly, lots of people hate sport. Hate it in a way that it’s pretty hard to hate music or films or geography or general knowledge. They manage to exclude it entirely from their life, and why shouldn’t they? Having it suddenly imposed upon them can cause real resentment.  Interestingly, both on review sites and amongst friends who bought it, one of the few quibbles about our highly successful iPhone app (called QuizQuizQuiz) was that there was a “disproportionate” amount of sport categories. In fact, there wasn’t, there was the same percentage of sport questions as there was all the other main categories, but that indicates the extent to which Sport looms like a grisly beast to those that don’t like it.

On a personal level, I’ve been obsessed with sport and sports statistics from a young age (I pretty much memorised every Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack between 1984 and 1991), but that was almost a drawback when I started out writing quizzes. It’s not the minutiae and the geeky facts that are of interest to any but a tiny minority. The key to a sport round working for an audience, like we have at our corporates, that may not even like quizzes, let alone sport quizzes, is to be fair, broad, not too hard, have lots of stuff which is possible to work out/think through on a general level, questions about men’s and women’s sport, questions about sporting legends who almost everyone has heard of, nothing which will make people think sport is even more pointless than they already do!

Here are one or two examples of sport questions, all, in their own way, fun questions (in my opinion) but in different ways.

1. (A general knowledge, thinky question, which actually has very little to do with what you know about sport, so works for most audiences)

In which sporting event does the winning team move backwards, and the losing team move forwards?

2. (This is a real sports geeky question. I love it, but teams rarely get it right, it requires both serious knowledge and a bit of lateral thinking)

Which is the only team in the Premier League at the moment that has never been relegated from the top division of English football?

3. (This is the kind of question which works well near the start of a sport round, it’s about sport, but not, it lets people who fear sport know that there’ll be stuff in the round they can help with)

Rod Tidwell was a successful but temperamental wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. Who was his extremely famous agent?

4. (This is a good solid sports question, about a legendary sportsman who everyone has heard of. It requires a bit of knowledge, but not too much, and has a nice 50/50 element to it)

What name was given to Muhammad Ali’s 1975 fight against Joe Frazier?

Good luck with those, sports fans!

Bright Jackets and Sparkly Bow-Ties

What should a quiz master wear?

Of  the hundreds (and thousands) of clients for whom we have run quizzes over the years, the vast majority, say 99%, are entirely happy that we will dress appropriately for the event. Sometimes they don’t even tell us that the event is Black-Tie (luckily, we always ask, so we can dress suitably).

However, some people are desperate for us to wear bright jackets and sparkly bow-ties (but the majority would be desperate for us not to!). Events companies seem keen for us to wear black, when we’re meant to be in the foreground and not fading into the background. We’ve even had a client worried that the quiz master would be wearing clown shoes (I think she might have been confusing a quiz master for a clown – generally, but not always, they are different).

In my view there are only two rules, one obvious, one less so, but both about not making an issue out of clothing:

1. Dress at the same level of formality as the audience (and find out in advance, if necessary, what that will be). Let your quiz running impress the audience, and don’t let your attire (whether too formal, or too casual) distract from that.

A good example of this was Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee running a quiz with us the other day. It was Hallowe’en fancy dress, and they played along spectacularly.

2. If it is hot, and/or you are the sort of person who sweats a lot, then wear an extra layer under your shirt to absorb sweat, thereby avoiding unsightly patches emerging during the quiz which could distract the quiz participants!

What do you think a quiz master should wear? Is a quiz not a quiz if the quiz master isn’t dressed ostentatiously?

The Golden Cheer

So what, at a quiz night, gets the biggest cheer? Though I will, at the end of this post, give a definitive, cast-iron answer to this, I will provide a little musing and analysis on the subject beforehand.

The loudness of a cheer at the answer to a quiz question is dictated by two important factors 1. How many people are cheering 2. The amount of noise each person is making. Rocket science this, isn’t it?

People cheer if they get something right, so, first of all, you want a question that loads of teams get right. That deals with issue 1. But how much noise will they make? They will make more noise if they are delighted with themselves for getting something right than if they knew they were going to get something right. So that deals with issue 2. It is no good just asking lots of questions that every team is guaranteed to get right and they know instantly they’ve got right – the resulting cheer will be desultory at best.

You want a question, therefore, that most teams will get right, but they won’t be sure until you’ve given the answer that they have right. You want them to have considered more than one option and then chosen the right option. But rather than pure multiple choice questions, where you give them the options, you want teams to have come up with the options themselves. People cheer loudest if they think they might be the only team in the room to have got a question right, but of course the loudest cheer of all comes when every team thinks they are the only team to have got a question right.

Cheers are lovely for a quiz master, as they are for anyone with a microphone, I suppose. [Never having been a rock star, my experience is limited]. I remember at the first corporate quiz I ran in 2006 there were teams cheering answers, and me thinking “Gosh, this actually works. I can do this”. Not only are cheers good for the quiz master’s ego, they are a good gauge of how the quiz is going and the nature of the crowd. In giving the answers to Round 1, I’ll usually have included one guaranteed “big cheer” question (to which the answer is often Antarctica!) and until I’ve heard that, I can’t be entirely sure what kind of night it’s going to be.

There isn’t a formula  – some times the cheer is a bit of a surprise. I have a question at the moment to which the answer is ‘Snakes on a Plane’ and I have no idea why saying that answer sends teams into raptures and makes middle-aged men in suits bang their tables and spill their drinks in delight, but it does. Part of the fun of asking new questions at corporate quizzes is getting that first surprise cheer when testing a question and thinking “That one’s a keeper!”.

Anyway, I said I’d give a definitive, cast-iron answer and i’ll be true to my word. Here’s how it goes. One of my colleagues last week was assisting a “celebrity host” at a big charity quiz (we love doing charity quiz nights, but they can be challenging because of a typically very broad demographic) . This celebrity host is a famous, well-liked, extremely funny (in my opinion), clearly intelligent stand up comedian who is often seen on telly performing to large audiences. Before giving the answer to one question on the music round, my colleague said to him “Just say “And all those songs were UK Number 1s in Ninety Ninety (pause) One” and you will get the biggest reaction you’ve ever seen” “Really?” said the comedian. “Really” said the quiz master. So, he read the answer as instructed, got the expected reaction, and turned to my colleague with a smile on his face.

And that’s how it is. I’ve run hundreds of quizzes, but i know without doubt that the greatest eruption of joy and noise, the golden cheer of the evening, will greet me saying a year with a little pause in the middle.