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Putting together a quiz night (Part 1)

Here at QuizQuizQuiz, we don’t currently host any weekly pub quizzes, concentrating instead on corporate quizzes and question writing (as well as a few pretty exciting ideas in the pipeline). However, we put together hundreds of quiz nights every year and have written many, many pub quizzes in the past, so feel pretty well qualified to talk about how to put together a jolly good quiz for any kind of crowd.

In this post, I’ll limit myself to talking about quiz rounds as a whole, rather than specific questions (and their balanced distribution within a round and a quiz), which I’m sure we’ll come to at a later date. I’m talking about the overall construction of a quiz rather than the details.

How long should it be? How many rounds? How big should these rounds be? How hard should it be? What subjects to include? What should I avoid? What kind of rhythm should I establish within each round? What embellishments add to the magic?

Having listed all those questions, I realise that there’s rather too much there for one blog post. It goes without saying that these won’t be prescriptive answers, and that I, and no doubt you, will have been to plenty of excellent quizzes where the format was very different from what I lay out below. However, these suggestions reflect personal preference, a bit of common sense, and generally speaking, what we at QQQ have, over the years, discovered works best for us.

So, first of all, how long should a quiz be? Well, we get asked to run quizzes lasting anything from 20 minutes to 3 1/2 hours, and we like to think that, whatever the length, we’ll give our client just what they’re looking for (i.e. top notch quiz entertainment). However, quite often these shorter ones use the quiz as just one part of a bigger  showcase event or to be fitted in between courses of a formal meal, so I’ll concentrate on those where the quiz is the main focus of the event.

If you have an evening devoted to a quiz, whether a corporate event or a pub quiz, somewhere between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hours is ideal – I’d probably plump for 2 hours of quizzing with a break in the middle. This is enough time to fit in a wide variety of question types and subject matter, to build up a real momentum, to make people feel they’ve got their money’s worth, yet can be broken up into convenient chunks so participants who feel desperate for a cigarette or something radical like a conversation with their colleagues have an opportunity to do so.

If it’s less than an hour and a half, I often feel there are things we’ve missed, and more than two and a half hours, well, maybe for real enthusiasts, but it can be tiring for everyone (think about a film that is 2.5 hours long – tiring, and you are just sitting back and relaxing…), and if half the participants aren’t extremely drunk by the end, you’d be surprised.

And, on a similar topic, how many rounds should there be?

Somewhere between 5 and 8, I think, bearing in mind that one round should nearly always be a table round (pictures/puzzles, that kind of thing). 4 can sometimes feel like too few, like someone’s speciality will be missed out and they’ll feel unfavoured. This can be addressed by including plenty of different subjects within hybrid rounds, but nevertheless, I’m in favour of a good spread. You don’t want to have too many rounds though – people will forget what came where and just feel a little confused. It’s quite hard to answer this question, though, without moving to the next, which is

How big should these rounds be?

Here, I think the important answer is that it can, and should, vary. Although it might make practical sense sometimes, 6 rounds of 10 questions ad infinitum is rather a shame. Think in terms of time rather than number of questions – I don’t think a round should be much less than 15 minutes and I don’t think even the meatiest of rounds should be much longer than 25 minutes. In this range, this will give you 10-15 questions, but there might be quite a few multi-part questions with lots of different points available.

It’s very much part of our modus operandi to keep players on their toes – so you know roughly what’s coming, but not exactly – mixing up the the pace of the rounds and the number of questions and points per round is one technique that we use to achieve that.

Lots more to come, but for now, what’s the longest/shortest quiz you’ve ever been to? What is the ideal length and structure of a pub quiz?

 

Profiling the Professional QuizMaster

Who becomes a professional quiz master?

If you run a quiz night, and get paid for it you are a professional quiz master. As Aleksandr Orlov would say: “Simples”.

But there is a difference between running an occasional quiz night and getting a bit of pocket money for it, and it actually being your main, or one of your main jobs. So I’m going to attempt to look at pub quiz masters, amateur and professional, according to the frequency (and type) of quiz nights that they run.

Mr. Church Hall / PTA / Charity Quiz Man Once or Twice a year

This quiz master is a very popular man in his local community. He will either be a bit of a character or will be famous for getting to the second round of 15-to-1 in 1994, not to mention the fact that he applied for Mastermind (and definitely not to mention that he was once the Weakest Link). He won’t be paid to run the church/PTA/charity quiz night, but he does an excellent job, and the quiz goes down well, and everybody says “We should do this more often” (but they don’t do it more often because it is a lot of effort to organise).

Mr. Landlord Pub Quiz Master

A pub landlord who runs his own quiz is almost always an excellent pub quiz master. He knows the locals and the regulars, and quite probably sets many of the questions himself. He is far more likely to be found hosting the quiz in a rural pub rather than an urban one – that’s just the way it is. Of course he does get paid – because he is the landlord, and the quiz night, all being well, results in a boost in takings that comfortably exceeds the time, cost and effort of putting the quiz together.

Mr. Bemused Desultory Member of Bar Staff

This is the awkward, often slightly inarticulate, cousin of the Landlord run quiz, and best avoided by punters and pubs alike. That’s not to say that a member of the bar staff can’t run a good quiz (and when they do it well they can elevate the quiz at least to Mr. Landlord Pub Quiz Master territory) but that when the wrong person ends up doing it then the worst kind of quiz experience is often the outcome, frustrating to all concerned.

Mr. Member of Last Week’s Winning Team

Plenty of pubs operate a “Win one week, set the next” system. This can result in wildly varying quality of questions and quiz master skills, and almost always results in one or two questions of monstrous difficulty on the quiz master’s pet subject. However, these quizzes often have the greatest variety, and in the right pub quiz environment can result in outstandingly good pub quizzes. No payment, but kudos.

Mr. Pub Quiz Master Once a Week

Not the landlord, but a regular at the pub who drew the short straw many a year ago, and now runs the pub quiz night once a week (apart from August and December when he takes one week off). Payment: multiple pints of beer.

Mr. Professional Couple of Nights a Week But Someone Else Writes the Questions

This quizmaster will work 2-3 nights a week, running a quiz provided by a company who does all the business side of things with the pub. Usually big quiz enthusiasts or people who like performing or some combination of the two. This is where we move from amateur to professional as payment now is half-decent and may even include a cut of the entry fees into the quiz.

Mr. Professional Several Times a Week and Writes His Own Questions

This is his actual job. Yes, his actual job. Writing quiz questions. Hosting quiz nights. What a job! He is, by definition, very good at both writing and hosting quizzes. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be busy enough and would need another job. He might well have another job anyway (but doesn’t need it) because he is a very talented man. Seek out such quizmasters and their quizzers. As the Michelin guide might say: 3 stars, worth a specific trip to visit. We recommend the Dale Collins Fun Quiz, which is on several times a week (six at the last count) in Oxfordshire and surrounds.

I’ve decided to stop here, and not comment on the world of the company quiz night that is our main world. It is a bit different, and we’ll talk about running corporate quiz nights and compared to a more traditional pub quiz night in a future post. We’ll also do some interviews with the QuizQuizQuiz QuizMasters in coming weeks and months so you can get to know a little bit more about the people behind this blog.

[A quick word on spelling. We always used to spell QuizMaster without a space and with a capital Q and M when referring to one of the professional QuizQuizQuiz QuizMasters, but we forgot about it, and actually once upon a time google wasn’t quite so clever at distinguishing terms and it seemed to help our search positions to spell it quiz master, with a space. So –  nowadays our spelling of this all important word (or words) is a bit haphazard!]

Cheating in pub quizzes

This is the big topic for anybody who runs or attends any kind of quiz night these days. Once upon a time it was about people sneaking a look at reference books in their bag. Then it was about texting friends to ask them for help, or indeed for them to look something up for you. But nowadays it is like an arms race between quiz teams who cheat, quiz teams who don’t cheat, and the quiz master. There are so many tools available to the quiz cheater, and so many people seemingly willing to use them.

So in this post we’re going to look at who is cheating, why they are cheating, and how they are cheating. We’ll also look at a selection of counter-measures that can be used by quiz masters. As always we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Who is cheating at pub quizzes and why?
I have seen all types of people cheat at quizzes – old, young, male, female, clever, stupid, and people from all nationalities and social demographics (actually, people from countries without a pub quiz culture are more likely to cheat from my experience, probably because they don’t know and therefore are less able to respect pub quiz convention). The most obvious explanation is that people cheat, or try to cheat, because they don’t know the answer and want to know. But it is more than that.

People cheat because they are too lazy to work out the answer – because we live in a world in which you can hear something that you don’t know much about (be it on TV, in a conversation or anywhere) and within seconds have full details on the subject on your smartphone to read some background. This means that we have become accustomed to always knowing the answer in real life. If you are a smartphone user, or someone who spends a great deal of time with access to the internet (and let’s face it, this applies to most pub quiz goers) you are incredibly rarely in a situation where you can’t very rapidly get hold of some information you don’t know in your head. In other words, we no longer cope with a situation of “not knowing”, and for many people the solution to that situation is to look something up. And that of course is fine in a social/work context, but it defeats the point at a quiz night.

You could say that the sort of people who cheat at quizzes are those who don’t care about the conventions of a quiz night – or more likely simply don’t care about the quiz at all and don’t want to be there. They don’t want the mental effort of thinking because they have become so used to instant technological access to answers. This tends to be more of an explanation for attendees at corporate quiz events – to which non-quizzy participants will generally go because of social pressure from work colleagues – compared to pub quiz nights which most of the participants are enthusiastically and voluntarily attending. Yet cheating is a problem in the quiz at your local pub just as much, if not more, than at a work quiz night. So this “not interested” explanation doesn’t cover a big chunk of quiz cheating.

We can cover some of the remaining cheaters as people who should know the answer and don’t want to look stupid/want to look cleverer than they actually are in front of their team mates or rival teams (which could often be friends/foes/work colleagues).

In this category are people whose response to being challenged with wikipedia in full flow in their hands is: “I used to know that/I read that the other day, so looking up isn’t cheating, it’s refreshing my memory.” This brazen response usually comes from people who are supremely self-confident and can justify to themselves and to their teammates that this is entirely “acceptable cheating”.

At a pub quiz, where you might not really know the other teams (except by repute or frequent attendance at the quiz night), there is no shame in getting a question wrong that other teams get right. In fact, at some quizzes the opposite is true. It is indeed very common to see teams gleefully boasting that they know nothing about “Glee” and are pleased to have got it wrong (whether they actually feel this, or are just making their excuses for not winning the quiz is academic here: my point is that there is a way to cope with lack of knowledge that does not reduce teams to cheating). So do people ever cheat at a pub quiz to avoid looking stupid? Yes they do, but it is just as likely to be one rogue individual on a team cheating without the knowledge of his/her team mates. If a question comes up on a team member’s “specialist subject” then the pressure is on. I would suggest that a large number of cheating incidents at a pub quiz are committed by one or more members of the team, unbeknownst to their team mates. And as such any accusations against that team can be quite easily denied – it only requires one person on the team to be a good liar. My conclusion here is that a team that cheats may in fact be an honest team with one bad egg that the team itself is not aware of.

At corporate quiz nights (which is very familiar territory to us) it is perhaps easier to understand why people might cheat to avoid looking stupid. Most workplaces are very competitive, even if not on the surface. Put people into teams, and make them compete on anything and the competitive juices start flowing. This is emphasised when the people are work colleagues and the real prize for winning the quiz is not the cheap bottle of champagne but gloating rights for months (or indeed years. Who can forget the time in 2003 when Bill’s team of shelf-stackers from the warehouse came from behind to win the work quiz night on a tie-break against the team from Accounts?). So we sometimes see people trying to cheat at company quiz nights to avoid the ignominy of coming last, or to take the glory of coming first. In short – to avoid looking stupid in front of work colleagues.

The most obvious reason for cheating at quizzes ought to be a desire to win the prize. There are pub quizzes out there with £500+ jackpots, £100 bar tabs etc. People might see the (albeit relatively modestly sized) dollar signs in their eyes and end up using subterfuge/fraud to get their hands on the prize – but is this really different from a drugs cheat in the Olympics or a benefits cheat? Not really, and when the prizes are large it isn’t just “a bit of fun” but actually it is just fraud. Wikipedia, that great quiz resource, defines fraud as “intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual…defrauding people or entities of money or valuables is a common purpose of fraud… [as is]… to gain prestige…”. Clearly the consequences of pub quiz fraud are unlikely to be more serious than being booed or banned from the pub. It is a fairly well known phenomenon that winning anything, however small, stimulates a buzz, so this could explain people who cheat for even small prizes.

How do people cheat at quiz nights?
Once upon a time cheating was looking something up in a book or nipping out to the phone box to call a friend, but technology has advanced dramatically. We’ll look at some hi- and low-tech cheating methods.

Low-tech
At school, cheating will often mean “copying” from another student. This definitely still happens in quizzes: teams try to sneak a look at other teams’ answer sheets. I’ve seen this done very surreptitiously and very conspicuously: someone goes to the bar, but weaves their way round a few tables glancing towards the answer sheets; someone talks to the quiz master and tries to sneak a look at his computer or question sheet; a player leans over to talk to their friend on another team, all the while casting their beady eyes towards the answer sheet; a team sends a scout to try and steal another team’s answer sheet (yes, really, I’ve seen this!).

Then there is cheating by eavesdropping / overhearing. The former is, I would say, cheating. The latter is, I reckon, carelessness by the team speaking too loudly! If you genuinely hear another team say something, then it is really impossible not to at least throw that answer into the mix for your team. I’ve run a handful of quizzes in which several teams have all put down the same unlikely and uncommon wrong answer to a question, although there are explanations other than mass cheating for this phenomenon (like shared experiences at work places). The flipside of this is that you get teams saying comedy wrong answers deliberately loudly to try and put other teams off the scent (although occasionally they’ll say the correct answer out loud having completely missed the point of the question).

Mid-tech
Send a text to 63336 and they’ll text you back the answer (this is the phone number for AQA, Any Question Answered). Or send a text to your friend or just sneak outside and call them. They can look the answer up for you. Not much more to say about this really. If your friend is so good at quizzes that they can tell you the answers without looking up, then they should be with you at the quiz night…and if they are looking things up online for you, then that is much naughtier.

Hi-tech
I reckon that you could have most answers to most questions at most quizzes answered pretty easily with Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Goggles and Shazam. Assuming a pub has 3G access (and many even have Wifi) then most smartphone users will be able to do their cheating under the table or in the toilet or outside whilst “taking a phone call from their dad”.

  • Wikipedia – well I think most people know about Wikipedia, the single greatest knowledge resource ever known to man. For even faster mobile access try the Wikipanion app.
  • Google Maps – an underused but stunningly powerful quiz research (and hence quiz cheat) tool, and not just for Geography questions
  • Google Goggles – finally, a way to cheat on picture rounds. It works best on pictures of celebrities, logos, paintings – I believe it works on anything that Google can look up in its database and see if it has the same picture in its database.
  • Shazam – a way to cheat on music questions. Shazam only needs to hear a short snippet (less than 10 seconds) of some music and it can compare it to its database and tell you what it is.

The other higher-tech cheating technique I have seen combines the good old “text your mate” with Twitter. This works particularly well for celebrity quizzers with vast twitter followings. We ran a Hallowe’en quiz with Paul Daniels in 2011 which had an almost entirely celebrity audience (TOWIE type celebrities). During the quiz, the Twitter feeds of the participants were buzzing with requests for help from their followers.

How to stop people cheating

For every reason that people cheat, and every method people use to cheat, I believe there is a counter-measure, or combination of counter-measrues. There is a lot of crossover in preventative techniques, as well as some general principles, all of which should combine to reduce or eliminate cheating. So here we go. This is how you stop people cheating:

Fire up the mobile phone jammer and configure any available wireless networks not to accept connections from mobile devices for the duration of the quiz, and/or monitor all network traffic on your wireless network so you can see what sites people are visiting and what they are looking up.

OK, this is a bit unrealistic, and probably illegal. Let’s try some realistic ways to stop people cheating:

1. The quiz master should start the quiz night with a firm instruction about phones. Try this: “Before we start, a very important announcement about iPhones, Android devices, Blackberry phones, or anything else: keep them out of the way, keep them off the table, and in your bags or pockets. If they are seen at any point during the quiz, it will look like you are cheating, even if you are not. We don’t want anyone to be unfairly accused of cheating, so keep your phones out of the way. Turn them off if you dare.”

If you see someone using their phone during a quiz, pick them on it very rapidly, and do it publicly and humorously. Even if you can see they aren’t cheating, you need to emphasise the message about phones being kept completely out of sight. Mobile phones in quizzes are just an unacceptable as phones in the cinema or theatre, albeit for very different reasons.

2. If the prize is large, you could consider adding to the announcement above: “We’ve got a big prize tonight, and as such we will treat any attempts to win it using anything other than the brains of your team as fraud. Please don’t make our life complicated. Keep your phones out of the way and switched off. If you can’t trust yourself not to use them, then you can hand them in at the bar for safekeeping.” This is a bit extreme, but seriously – if people are cheating to win large sums of money off other punters at the pub, then why is that any different from another type of theft/fraud? I don’t recommend using this line unless you have a genuine, evidence-backed concern about the integrity of your participants.

3. Make the first 5-10 questions of the quiz quick and easy. Every team has to feel that they could have got 10/10 on the first 10 questions. As soon as you throw in a question that teams could never have got (because it is too hard/specialist etc.) then you risk people cheating. It’s ok if they end up getting 6 or 7 out of 10, as long as they feel they could have got 10 out of 10. People cheat if they feel that is the only way to get to an answer.

4. Ask some questions early on that every team will get or get close to, but that they have to go through some easy to identify thought process to work out. e.g. ‘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?’ Why does that work? Well, pretty much everyone has seen the film. They might not remember it that well, but they will be able to establish that it is multiple choice. They know they can at least make a guess. They have some options to discuss. You have to ask questions that people can get their teeth into. If you ask a question and see that nobody is making any progress on it, then give them a little handle to be working on.

5. Get some answers and scores given out within the first 15-20 minutes of the quiz. Show people that they are getting things right.

Points 3-5 are about showing people early on in your quiz that the questions will not be so difficult that they need to consider cheating to get answers. It gets people into the habit of answering questions from their knowledge (because the questions are accessible). It shows people that the fun of the game is in using your brain, not in looking things up, and by giving some answers and scores early on your provide positive feedback for this, correct, way of the participants getting to answers. Which brings us onto the next one…

6. Don’t ask questions that are too difficult or boring. Each question that you ask that nobody in the quiz knows or finds interesting massively increases the chances of people cheating. If you don’t let people interact with your quiz in the way you want them to because your material is unsuitable then you push people towards using their technology. Yes, I am saying that a badly set quiz is often a reason why people cheat.

7. Don’t give people longer than they need between questions. Keep an eye on your audience and understand the difficulty of a question. If a question is easy, move on to the next one quickly. If it is hard, give them enough time to get into the question, but not so long to start looking things up. You can tell how teams are getting on by watching them, and seeing the level of their thinking/discussion. If you give them more than a minute or so to work out the answer to a question not only will they get bored but it then gives them time and space to start on the dirty deed. If you keep the momentum going, then any effort to cheat on a question will be interrupted by the next question coming along, and so and so forth. The net result is that any sustained cheating effort will become more and more obvious as a player will have to be permanently attached to his/her phone to keep up.

8. Ask some cheat-proof questions, like lateral-thinking questions, or connection questions. Actually, totally cheat proof questions are difficult to set week in, week out, what with all the tools available to the well-prepared and determined quiz cheat. And indeed a whole quiz of puzzles, observation questions, and backwards-music clips could quickly become tedious. You need the variety, and you need to reward honest quizzers for their knowledge.

9. To counteract Google Goggles cheats on picture rounds there are a few options. First – you can add some kind of fuzziness or scrambling to your pictures. Second – use non publicly available pictures from paid-for picture libraries (although this can be expensive). Google Goggles generally doesn’t cope with those, but it is an expensive option. Thirdly, and most fun (but regular quiz teams and indeed any regular quiz cheats will catch on to it, so use it sparingly and intelligently) put in a high quality picture of someone not famous or recognisable but who has a significant online profile, e.g. an academic, or a very famous popstar from another country who has no profile at all in this country. Any team getting it right is probably using Google Goggles.

10. Ask teams to identify a famous phone number. “Which service would you reach by calling the following number…” and then give them a SkypeIn number you have set up specifically to divert to a cheapo pay as you go mobile phone that you have bought. Anybody who calls…well, ring them back and when their phone rings expose them as cheats.

11. Play music between questions to stop teams overhearing each other.

12. You could consider offering two prizes at the quiz: one prize of £5 or a single pint of beer for teams that wish to use their phones during the quiz, and the proper main prize for everyone else who plays honestly. Set a simple rule that as soon as you see a phone on a table, or being got out of a bag or a pocket that is automatic entry into the “cheats” competition. The danger with this approach is that you risk tempting people to try and cheat without detection, but I have heard of this system working well in some pubs, particularly ones in which there are a few very strong “real teams” and a lot of weaker teams. You then actually have some fun seeing if the technology can overcome the real quiz teams.

My best advice to prevent cheating is a combination of a firm, but good natured, warning at the start and engaging, gettable questions. As we wrote back in December in a related post:

“There is far more to preventing cheating than having Google-proof questions. In fact, counter-intuitively, one of the techniques used by our QuizMasters to prevent cheating is the exact opposite of having Google-proof questions. If you can start the quiz with a selection of questions which would be easy to find on Google (or any other cheating means) BUT are engaging enough and interesting enough and gettable enough that players and teams realise the enjoyment is in working out that they know them, then you are onto a winner. Players discover that the fun is in the challenge of working out that they know the answers (or can work them out) without resorting to naughtiness.”

This is a big topic…we would love to hear your thoughts on any of this, and indeed any other cheating counter-measures you have tried or seen used effectively.

Crowd Control and Rabble Rousing

Some audiences can be extremely difficult to manage, and require a Quiz Master (or indeed any other entertainer / speaker) to use all the tricks of the trade and force of presence and personality to keep things under control.

I recently ran an 80s themed quiz for a very exuberant group of 120 sales people, 30s-50s, and 80 % men. The room was tightly packed, everyone had been drinking for a couple of hours before the quiz started, and noise levels were very high. Most of them hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months as they work all over the country, and there was a great deal of general machismo, back-slapping, guffawing and gentle-to-aggressive sales person banter going on amongst colleagues.

After the quiz, our client said: “I’ve never seen this group so effectively engaged and entertained for so long. Normally they are impossible.”

Before the quiz, this is what our client had said: “It must be stressed that you can expect everything from this group. Literally. I have seen a professional comedian leaving the stage almost in pieces and saying this was the most difficult group he had ever handled. Don’t get me wrong – they are a good bunch, but with lots of energy and will let it be known if they don’t like something. So I usually pre-warn all entertainers.”

We have a section in our QuizMaster bible called “Crowd Control and Rabble Rousing”. I’m not going to divulge many QQQ trade secrets (!), but the key is to manage every aspect of the quiz and be in full control the whole way through. The crowd need to know you are in charge, but you hope to do that in a way that allows them to let their hair down. You hope to have plenty of singing along and shouting and cheering, and but at the same you want to try and ensure that for participants it feels entirely spontaneous (and generally, it will be). However, if you get it right as a QuizMaster then you should be able to know, almost to the nearest millisecond, exactly when the crowd will react and when. If you can get them singing and shouting and cheering (preferably extremely loudly!) on your own terms then that is a good result..

And above all, you have to keep the pace up, and try not to give the exuberant crowd any breathing space to get bored or wander off.

When we work with celebrities as quizmasters they often start very well, but lose energy, concentration, momentum, and thence the crowd as the quiz goes on. Running quizzes is not easy, in particular this type of event is never easy. Auto-pilot is out of the question. Experience in running all sorts of corporate quiz events plays a massive part so that you know what techniques to use for a particular event.

So it is all about this vital combination of Crowd Control and Rabble Rousing – you have to try and do both. The former without the latter is a recipe for boredom for the participants, and the latter without the former is a recipe for disaster and misery for the entertainer.

So there we go. This particular event went very well, and (without bigging ourselves up too much more!) is a good example of why our clients come back to us for their company quiz nights – because they know we’ll get it right, whatever the circumstances.

The Charismatic Quizmaster

A few aspects of what it takes to be a good quizmaster have already been touched upon in this blog, but I’m going to focus on whether it is necessary to possess that rare and undefineable quality of charisma.

Having run 100s of quizzes myself, I can at least say that my own complete lack of said undefineable quality has not been an insurmountable hindrance to running reasonably enjoyable events, but am I kidding myself? Is charisma, star power, real personality a key ingredient in the quality quizmaster’s armoury?

Not necessarily. Anyone going into running quizzes thinking they can get by on personality alone may well be in for a fall. Far more important are the basic and unglamorous components of a good, clear voice, a good general knowledge and a bit of patience. Arguably, charisma, if misapplied, can be less blessing than curse. Most quiz participants are there for the questions, for the competition. If they want to see a comedian, they’ll go and see a comedian.

Having said that, I’ve seen several circumstances where a bit of genuine personality is a vital ingredient, not least when there is a poor or indeed no soundsystem. A powerful and rich set of lungs can save a quiz set for disaster. Likewise, if you have a thoroughly disinterested audience, the ability to engage, to get them on your side, is a real gift.

But, in truth, for quizzes, those situations are fairly rare. Whether it is a pub quiz, where most people will have gone along because they like quizzes, so are already “on side”, or a corporate team-building event, where people are generally likely to behave themselves and engage, you usually have enough of people’s attention not to have to exude sheer charisma.

For my own part, I tend to be quite reactive. I try to make sure I get the basics right, have good sound, speak clearly etc (of course, the main thing is to have a good and entertaining set of questions, but that’s for another blog) and then if the crowd is receptive, one can relax and have a bit of banter. There’s no need to force it, to have a set of bad jokes stored up, the quiz can still be successful without any great humour, and indeed better to play it safe than to alienate the audience.

Still, that’s just me. I make do with what I’ve got. Rest assured, there are plenty of other QuizQuizQuiz Quizmasters who are simply oozing raw star power, and they may have a very different take on it.

What do you think? Do you prefer a QM with a bit of something about them? Have you ever seen a good quizmaster save a bad quiz? Or a try-hard quizmaster ruin a good quiz?

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!

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.