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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.

Comparing Corporate Quizzes

Corporate quizzes are our main business. I’ve explained before what a “corporate quiz” is, but essentially, most often, it’s like a pub quiz except there are more people in suits i.e. the “corporate” is in the participants, rather than the content.

So, what of those participants? How do they fare? As a QuizQuizQuiz quiz master, I’ve spent a lot of my life dipping into the corporate world, given my name to a lot of receptionists, worn a lot of lanyards, seen a lot of offices and conference suites, met a fair few CEOs and a lot of PAs, have along the way picked up a little bit of what the difference is between various industries which, when I was younger, I would categorise in blanket terms of being “business” or “city”.

We’ve done quizzes for all kinds of professions and non-professions … lawyers and bankers and support workers, doctors and traders and insurers, programmers and advertisers, marketers and teachers, consultants and accountants, journalists and electricians, charity workers, salespeople, teachers, builders and chefs, gamesmakers and engineers, as well as children, parents, volunteers and churchgoers, not to mention all other uncategorisable quizzers.

What can I tell you? Do any stereotypes hold up? Well, I will say that on the occasions we’ve found that teams have been keeping their own (and everyone else’s!) score to the end, vigilant and competitive, they’ll be lawyers or parents of private prep school children. And I will say, that, yes, traders are extremely loud and bawdy and competitive but also that they actually really listen and pay attention, even when it seems like they’re not.

Beyond that gentle generalisation, well, people are people. Sure, one picks up little things about the differences between groups, but quite often that’ll be about the culture within a company, rather than wider professions.

And can I tell you who is best at quizzes? Well, we did once try to find out, just for a laugh. We did a statistical study of the scoresheets for all our quizzes. Now, there is a massive caveat  which really renders the study a little bit worthless, which is that people aren’t getting the same quiz. Indeed the very skill of a QuizQuizQuiz quiz master is to prepare the quiz beforehand and adapt it as it’s happening so that it is neither too easy for the best team nor too hard for the worst. So, actually, across professions, we would hope to discover that average scores are very similar.

I’ve also said that we’re aiming for the highest score at any quiz we run to be no higher than around 90% and for the lowest to be no lower than around 60%, so I suppose we’d hope for the average scores across professions to be somewhere between 70% and 75%, if we were really good at what we do …

Well, what do you know? Our statistical research told us that, across professions, the  highest average score was just over 75% and the lowest, just over 69%. So, we can be pretty happy with it. In fact, nearly all the professions are between 71% and 75%, and as for the only one a bit lower, at 69% (to ensure no embarrassment, I won’t reveal what it is), we actually run a lot of huge events for that profession with anywhere up to 60 teams, and the more teams there are, the harder it can be to make sure the lower teams just there for the jolly are still staying in touch in the scoring charts, so it’s an explicable blip.

What profession was the winner, for interest’s sake? Technology, just ahead of Education and Law. But do take that with a pinch of salt. My own experience tells me a quiz crowd, a company, a profession can always surprise you. If you go in thinking either “they’ll be really good at quizzes, they’re lawyers” or  “let’s keep it pretty basic, they’re …” you may get your quiz level totally wrong. It’s always subtler than that.

Which profession is really the best at quizzes? Well, quiz masters, I hope ….

World of Quiz

Quizzes seem to be everywhere at the moment. There’s a new show I’ve seen advertised on Sky (I haven’t watched it, I confess) called Quiz Nights, which seems to take a structured look at pub quiz nights around the country, there are the ever-intensifying knockout stages of UC and OC on a Monday evening for a small but significant demographic to get excited about, there’s the chap from The Apprentice introducing a larger demographic to the very notion that a quiz company is an actual thing that exists (We briefly considered changing our slogan to ‘QuizQuizQuiz: it’s a thing’ as a consequence – catchy, eh?), and, of course, there’s my day-to-day working existence, which gives me the false impression that everything, everywhere is about quizzes … so maybe quizzes aren’t everywhere at the moment …

But … there is a big and expanding world of quiz, isn’t there? In the nine years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen more and more quiz companies springing up, more and more people who are interested and have some background understanding of what I do, more and more subscribers to the famous QuizQuizQuiz Friday Quiz, and, if I’m not mistaken, more and more TV shows where the quiz itself is the essence, rather than the prize or the catchphrases.

Here at QuizQuizQuiz, we try to stay across the whole world of quiz as best as we can. Obviously, we’ve got our particular areas when it comes to the cold hard business of it all. We run corporate quizzes, event quizzes, quizzes for limited groups. We write questions … for our own quizzes and for people who pay us to do it. Those are our areas of business and so sometimes we’re entirely focused on them, rather than all the other areas of quizzing e.g. standard pub quiz nights, competitive high-level quizzing, ideas for new quiz show formats, TV quizzing (mainly) etc. That’s not to say that members of our team don’t partake of all the above or that we’re against going into those worlds, it’s just that, for the most part, we concentrate on our core business.

It’s nice, though, when we do things which cross over into the wider world of quizzing. Nothing I’ve ever done has elicited as much admiration and interest as the mere mention that we contribute questions to Only Connect (indeed, that my name’s in the credits). It’s nice sometimes to be asked to assist with other people’s ideas for TV quizzes or major quiz events, whether in a small or large way. Over time, we’ve built up a pretty good range of experience and expertise. I think we know pretty well what makes a good quiz, and that knowledge is transferable across a range of contexts.

It is a big world, quizzing. Sometimes I’ll be surprised to hear about companies or events that I never knew existed. Often, I’ll come across new shows, new ideas, new players in the game.

Quizzing occupies a slightly awkward place, though, where it’s not really looked upon seriously by the wider world as a sport, or as an art form, or expected to be a major commercial enterprise. It’s not that far away from being all three. Let it be what it is, many would say – a diversion, a once a month pleasure with a few pints, a once-a-week half hour shouting at the TV. “Trivia?” That’s the word, spoken with gentle contempt by some hard-working professional that wounds me most when I say what I do for a living. Well, not to me, no, quizzing’s not trivial.

What makes a quiz round?

This is a subject I’ve dropped into various posts before, but I don’t think I’ve ever written specifically on it. I’ll keep it brief and to the point.

We try to avoid quiz rounds which are too subject-specific. We get a lot of enquiries where people suggest something like “8 rounds on the usual subjects … History, Geography, Food and Drink, Sport, Entertainment, Science, Roundabouts and can we have a round on X-Factor …?” and we do our best to persuade people, nearly always successfully, that we will include all those subjects (though we might keep Roundabouts to a minimum unless we’re absolutely sure it’ll go down well) but we’ll just spread them out a bit between rounds.

The logic is fairly simple. If a round is on a specific subject and that specific subject is not to someone’s liking, they’re more likely to switch off for its duration. And if lots of people aren’t into a subject, lots of people will switch off, and we don’t want that, obviously. Likewise, if a few people are an expert on a given subject, and lots aren’t, then that’s a bit unfair.

There’s another good reason. We want to fit as many good questions into our quizzes as possible, within well-structured rounds. If we’ve agreed to do a round on, say, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of the 7th Century, it may be that they’re aren’t 10 top-class questions on that subject with varying difficulty enough to make a nicely nuanced round.

That reminds me of how we always used to start our quizzes for new clients (not so much now, so i don’t feel like I’m giving away a trade secret). We’d bring up a screen which showed a classical temple, and say “And now, the first round, on Ancient Greek Architecture …” to accompanying groans, before saying “Just kidding” clicking on the screen and the image would be shown to be part of something far more fun and engaging, to general relief and excitement.

The point being that a round on Ancient Greek Architecture would not be a great way to start a quiz, even (mainly) for experts on Ancient Greek Architecture.

We want our quiz rounds to allow for variety, to be intriguing, to get people talking, to be fair to all players. So we’re always coming up with quiz night ideas, tools for our quiz masters to keep the full crowd interested and on their toes. Over the course of our quizzes, we hope that you’ll get some questions on your favourite broad area, whether it’s Geography, History, Language, Drinks, Sport, TV, Film, Books, Art, Music, Politics or Animals, Chemistry, Business, Computers, Food, or whatever. Some of the questions, in fact a lot of them, will incorporate several of those subjects all at once. That’s another thing – good quiz questions can be hard to categorise.

When we used to run a  pub quiz, we ran a round in which, week on week, we asked teams to submit topics from which we’d choose 3 to have 5 questions of each the next week. What came back was endlessly inventive – Salty Snacks of the 80s, Kriss Akabusi, Questions that the Bar Staff could answer, Accidental Celebrity Genitalia, Big Feet, Bubbles, Countries that Don’t Exist … you get the idea. But in order to make it work, we had to think laterally. Each sub-topic had to be played with in order not to turn the joke sour and maintain the integrity of the round – and make even obscure specialist subjects accessible to the non-specialist.

If you come to one of our Corporate Quizzes, what you’ll get is a range of well-developed, easy-to-explain, enjoyable rounds which usually cover a bit of everything. Even people praying for a round on Roundabouts don’t end up feeling hard done by (actually they might do, but hopefully they’ll enjoy everything else!).

A Year in Quiz

We’re approaching the end of the busiest quiz season – our quiz masters have been flat out for the last few months running charity quizzes, school quizzes, brand launch quizzes, company quizzes, quiz competitions, university quizzes and Christmas quizzes up and down the country. And then, when it gets to the few days before Christmas, naturally enough … nothing. Not for a while, anyway. It gradually picks up again as January progresses (a good time to get a free date in our diary, if you’re interested) and hits a decent stride again in February.

But late December and early January gives us the breathing space to take stock and look closely at our product. We review all our feedback from the year, we look at all our material, write new questions where needed and collate everything we’ve produced in the previous year into a brand new database.

Every year, we want our quiz masters to run better quizzes than they did last year, so we have to improve our material and train people to use that material as well as possible.

At the start of 2014, in particular, we made a determined effort to improve our quiz nights as much as possible (I keep on resisting the urge to use a phrase like “take it to the next level”, “give us the wow factor”, “dial up the quiz experience to 11” … phew ….). We gently phased out a few old favourite rounds which perhaps belonged to a different era; we redesigned our on screen graphics, we created a lot more video content; we improved our picture rounds; created lots more varied audio content; came up with several new round ideas and determined to actually use them rather than relying on the tried and trusted; we bought a few new little gizmos and gadgets which just make quiz running a little smoother; and we continued working on further technological advances (technology not being my own strong point, I shall elaborate no further out of mild ignorance).

Anyway, it’s been a more exciting year than usual, seeing how all these new quiz night ideas stood up, seeing if we’re bringing a noticeably better quiz than in previous years.

Speaking for myself as a quiz master (rather than as a question writer), it’s been great. My first quiz with all the new material was for 55 teams in a huge conference room in London … and was being filmed … so no pressure. But I instantly saw what a positive response the new stuff was getting. One of the best things has been having a larger range of rounds to choose from. I can go into a quiz confident that I have different styles and lengths of round to suit every occasion, to adapt on the spot if needs be. Countless new questions have rapidly become old favourites.

As we’ve gained more and more repeat clients down the years, it became a challenge ensuring they were getting something fresh in terms of quiz rounds and content every time, but this year, we really haven’t had to worry about that so much. There’s so much new, fun stuff, it would be impossible to do something that was same-old, same-old.

And the good thing is we’re full of ideas to improve our quizzes for next year. There’s a massive bank of new material to incorporate and a few great new round formats to work on promoting from the “lab” to the “field”. Just need a little Christmas break, and then back to it!

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’…

Common Quiz Night Complications: Part 4

Another entry in this ongoing series, where I highlight recurrent, apparently reasonable enough,  requests from clients which we prefer not to include in our corporate quizzes and charity quizzes. So far, I’ve mentioned

  • Exaggerated Theming
  • Penalty or Bonus Points
  • Buying Clues

Now, it’s time to discuss (and eventually dismiss)…

Running Scores

Firstly, we’ll admit there isn’t a right and wrong  with this one. Plenty of good quizzes have running scores being read out, or indeed displayed on a flipchart, screen or laser display board.

You might well say “It’s like suggesting there shouldn’t be a Premier League table throughout the season. That would be rubbish”. Well, that would be impossible, for starters (unless Sepp Blatter announces even more sinister top-down proposals than he has managed to yet), but would it really be rubbish? Think how many dull games between mid-table teams with nothing to play for there used to be at the end of  the season, how much that lack of inspiration can still, even now when financial incentives have been brought in so that every position is worth fighting for to some extent, adversely affect the end of a season.

Here’s another sporting example. Occasionally, in Championship Boxing, someone’s had the bright idea of having the judges’ tallies being announced to the crowd (and hence to the fighters) at the end of the 4th and 8th round. But they found that the disheartened boxer who discovered he was miles behind on the scores would just give up, knowing that without a spectacular knockout there was no hope for him. Now, opponents of boxing might suggest that’s a good thing, that a boxer getting soundly beaten might be spared further punishment, but the point is that something introduced with the intention of providing the crowd with greater excitement actually had the opposite effect.

It’s not even necessarily the teams at the bottom who might lose interest. There’s glory in being rubbish and acting up to it. It’s those teams who might have gone into the quiz thinking they had a decent chance, but if they’re gradually dropping a few points per round, they’re falling behind. If it’s just the odd point here and there, they might well think they’re in with a chance right to the end, even though in truth, they’re about 10 behind. If they know it, disappointment and ennui might become evident, it’s only natural. No one wanted to be Spurs throughout the 90s (even, really, up to now), did they, with their endless mid-table boredom, and trust me, I was a Spurs fan, almost wishing we could have the occasional relegation scrap to liven things up.

We appreciate that people think that reading out running scores might keep things lively and exciting, foster and nourish rivalries, but, really, it can have the opposite effect. Here are a few other reasons …
1. It adds excitement to the final round, which in our quizzes has a format carefully designed to include an element of jeopardy. Teams gamble a little bit on what answers to write, and that gamble is more fun if they don’t know exactly what they’re aiming for. E.g. if the top team knows going into the last round they are leading by 6, they know they can play it very safe on  the last round – if they don’t know exactly, they have to take a bit more of a gamble, and, if they blow it spectacularly in the last round by getting lots wrong, well; that just adds to the fun.

2. Time. Our quizzes run to a well orchestrated flow. We build momentum and like to keep it going. Reading out running scores at the end of each round will slow the quiz down. This is only exacerbated if, as we’re sometimes asked, we put scores up on screen. In this case, the amount of time for scores to be added up and typed up will severely slow the quiz down. The only way to do this even remotely quickly is by inputting the scores directly into an excel sheet with a formula and then switching the signal to that laptop displaying the scores (as the quizmaster’s laptop will be in constant use and everything would come to a grinding halt if he had to stop using his laptop for a considerable time while scofes are inputted).

There would be cost of significant time and/or an extra, expensive piece of equipment.

3. The marking. We pride ourselves on the speed and quality of our marking, the way it blends seamlessly into the running order of the quiz. Running scores would make life a lot harder for the markers and prevent them doing their job as best they could.

Mistakes can be made, in both marking and adding up. In marking, it can take a fair bit of work to decipher some teams’ messy scribblings and getting all the sheets, correctly marked, to the quizmaster in time to read them out. Our markers are very good at it, but part of the process involves double-checking, throughout the quiz, that we totted each sheet, each round up right, so that we can be sure we’ve got it spot on by the end. Running scores puts pressure  on the marking to be perfect every step of the way, but any minor mistake, which we’d pick up during ongoing checks, would be highlighted by instantly giving out running scores.

What we do, always, is give out the scores for each round immediately the round is finished (though sometimes just a handful of the top scores in a larger quiz, for the sake of  time and momentum, though we’ll do our best to make sure all the team names, funny or not, are read out at some point).

Alert and sharp teams may well have a very decent idea of how they’re doing and who their rivals are – that’s fine. Likewise, sometimes individuals come up to us and ask us how they’re doing. We’re happy to give a vague idea – indeed I often announce how many points are separating teams etc. but anything more precise is to be avoided.

Really, tension and suspense is at the heart of it. It’s a similar case to when people hand in their answer sheet and say “Ooh, number 7 was a tester. What was the answer?” and we say “We’ll let you know when we read it out” and they say “But we’ve handed it it now, what’s the harm?” and the harm is that, once they know the answer, that will probably spread through the room, and so, by the time I read out the answer, which teams have been quarrelling over, rather than the roar of joy/shriek of despair which will greet it if teams are kept from knowing, there’ll be a damp pfft if everybody already knows. Might as well just hand people a sheet at the start, take it in, mark it and hand it back without a word.

Likewise, if teams know their scores all the way through, the tension will gradually be drained from the evening. Who knows, some teams might go home, start throwing paper planes, start cheating.

I said there wasn’t a right and wrong answer, but I’ve written this post as if there is! There are, I’m sure, positives to giving out running scores, but they don’t work for our format of quiz – and so we don’t do running scores: generally when people hire us they do so because they want us, with our thousands of quizzes worth of experience, to do what we know works best for our quizzes,

Testing Testing

As a QuizQuizQuiz Quiz Master and main Question Writer, all aspects of my job require testing things to see if they’re at the right level.

Of course, I do a sound check before every quiz. This is just as important when using our own portable equipment as when plugging into a venue’s own AV system, though the challenges are slightly different.

With our own  system, the challenge is placing the speakers so that everyone can hear properly with no one being blasted with noise, making sure there’s no feedback, that my voice sounds clear and crisp etc. Some rooms we turn up at can provide more of a challenge than others.

With a venue’s own AV system, whether in a pub, a hotel or a conference room in a company’s offices, it ought to be simpler, but there are pitfalls to avoid. The system should have been perfectly set up to suit the room, and often it is. Often it really is a case of plug in, play a little music, say a word or two, yes, this’ll be perfect. But as a quiz master, we’re very aware of how much more volume is required in a room full of 100 people than an empty room; aware of it in a way that sometimes a venue’s own AV specialist isn’t. Often, one has to politely suggest “I think I’ll need a little more than that on the mic” and be told “No, no, this is fine” when I know full well that as the hum of 100 people chatting and cheering and drinking grows, I really do need a little more on the mic.

Likewise, every now and then, a conference room’s sound may sound fine and clear at mid-volume, but may begin to struggle at a slightly higher volume –  a bit of hiss, a bit of crackle. Experience has taught me the importance of a rigorous test – or as rigorous a test as possible.

Likewise, testing is important for a question writer. We update the database for our corporate events regularly, write 100s and 100s of new questions a year, and we want these questions not just to be ok, decent, forgettable questions, we want them to be great, memorable questions. I have a  pretty good idea when I’ve written a question if it’s a cracker or not, but, in many cases, questions I think will be surefire hits get a muted response if not quite used right, while seemingly innocuous ones bring the house down.

So, we ask all our quiz masters to provide us with feedback on new questions they’ve used when we send out new questions. We’re always swapping ideas and thoughts on how a question has gone down or can be slightly improved – we all want every question we run to be a bit better than the last one we ran.

And, finally, in my capacity as the writer of our multiple choice questions, getting the right level is of paramount importance. Often, because of budget and timing, that testing has to be internal. If I’ve written 5,000 questions for a game, all of which  require a difficulty level, I (and the client) must rely on my own experience, my own hard-earned sense of what people know and what they don’t. I’m pretty good at it. As well as me, there’ll always be at least one other experienced question writer, editing and checking my questions, and if they  feel I’ve mislevelled a question, they’ll let me know.

Sometimes, if the budget’s higher, if the questions are more specialised, we can build a thorough question test into our schedule. You may know we’ve done that recently, with a game we’ve written and which we’re rather excited about. Because of the nature of the game, it was important to test the difficulty ramping.

And, we’re lucky, we’ve got a ready-made focus group, our Friday Quiz mailing list, who we think we’ve got a pretty good relationship with and who, frankly, enjoy a bit of a quiz. So we put a message out for anyone who wanted to help us testing and got a big response. It was hugely helpful to test how quizzers responded to all the questions in the game and will hopefully improve it for the wider audience we hope it finds.

Of course, part of the  experience of surveys and testing is not to blindly accept what basic statistics tell you. Above all, at QuizQuizQuiz,  we trust our own experience. We think we know what makes a good quiz question, a well-balanced round, a fair subject matter. Whenever that confidence is put to the test, we’re happy to see it confirmed (or not – and we learn from it!)

Common Quiz Night Complications Part 2

You may recall we’re going to write a series of short posts about ideas people sometimes come up with for their quizzes which, though well-intentioned, are generally complicated, hard to enforce and detrimental – and thus we usually (quite strongly) recommend against them.

Last week it was overaggressive theming at a quiz. This week, quite briefly, it’s…

Penalty Points and Bonus Points

I’m going to mention penalty points for teams cheating and (as was suggested to me last week and comes up quite often) extra points for teams with fewer members.

I’m pretty much against all bonus points. By bonus points I mean anything which doesn’t relate to how good you are at the quiz – so things like best team name, best costume, how quickly you get your sheet in. I’d pretty firmly stand against any suggestions that these should affect the result of the quiz. If I’ve ever had to give in to any of those, I’ve made sure it’s a very small number of points. And giving people a separate prize if you want to reward them for any of these things is a much better idea.

OK, it’s not the Olympics, and the main aim is fun, but a quiz should have some integrity, otherwise someone’s going to leave feeling sour. So no extra points for being able to sing the theme tune from ‘Cheers’, ok?

And likewise with penalty points. Even more than integrity in this case, it’s about atmosphere. Penalty points = Bad vibes. A quiz master is able to hold the authority of a room in as much as he is helping people to enjoy themselves and they will enjoy themselves most if they listen to him/her and follow any instructions from him/her. He has no actual authority in the lives of the people he is running the quiz for. If they turn against him, he has nowhere else to go really. Particularly with corporate quizzes. We’ve been brought in to do a job and the job is get people to have a good time. Penalty points will always be disputed, and what happens then? An arbitration panel? An appeal court?

Finally, something which can be a potential source of bonus points and penalty points: adjustment of scores according to team size.  This is suggested surprisingly often, but, like many things, is not quite as simple as it might at first seem.

Firstly, if there is a team which is smaller than others, that is (usually) their own issue or choice, they could have had more team members.

Secondly, if they win, then they might get £100, or 6 massive boxes of chocolates between 5 people, and not between 8 people. Well That’s nice for them. And if they do badly, well they can (and will) use it as an excuse. And if they beat a rival team then they can (and usually will) amplify their gloating rights.

And, primarily, how on earth are you meant to work it out? Is one person half as good as two? Is a team of 3 half as good as a team of 6? Of course not. Most people’s knowledge overlaps, so it may only be pretty small margins where there is a benefit to a larger team. Indeed, sometimes, in certain quizzes, too many cooks can spoil the broth.

We try very hard before our quizzes to make sure team numbers are evenly spread. We don’t like teams above 7 but if every team has 10 (for example for a dinner quiz) so be it. If most teams have 6ish and there is a team of 10, we’ll get them to split up. All that is much better than penalty points.

All in all, we’re not fans of penalty points or bonus points. Keep it clean, keep it fair!

What makes a quiz team?

A good quiz team name, of course, helps make a quiz team. But we’ve written about that before. Once the team name is sorted though, anything goes.

A winning team can be one person or it can be ten people (though perhaps it shouldn’t be!). It can be teetotal or fuelled by booze, it can be made up of friends or strangers, it can be studious or boisterous, picky or relaxed.

First of all, let’s talk about quiz teams at pub quizzes. The chances are these will be made up of friends/colleagues/family members etc. People will know each other. Perhaps not everybody all the time, but mainly. I’d say this helps, and this is something we’ll get to.

Then what? Well, one thing I observe is that the old’ division of labour’ idea (“You’re good for TV, I’m good for sport, you’re good for food and drink, old Jim will deal with 60s music” etc) doesn’t necessarily work. As I’ve found to my own chagrin on a few occasions, going into a quiz team as the touted sport expert, you’re on a hiding to nothing. For a well-written quiz, lots of generalists will often work best.

Also, a really bad thing for a quiz team is when even one person switches off for a round, thinking they’ll have nothing to contribute. You want as many brains as possible, and you also don’t want any atmosphere of ignorance and impatience.

It may be the case (and often is) that there is one top brain, the real king/queen of the quiz. That’s not detrimental to a team’s success, but (I’m talking to you now) you need to know how to use your powers. You don’t know everything, and it’s rare that you’ll be able to accrue enough points to win without your team’s help. Don’t alienate them. Let them speak and discuss first rather than leaping on every single answer you know. If you do that, they may not be there to help you when you need them.

And if there’s a fairly unforthcoming team member who suddenly is convinced of an answer which you don’t agree with, don’t dismiss it out of hand. The fact that you’re used to being right does not mean you’re right in this circumstance. Why are they so sure now when they haven’t been on other questions?

Again, I speak from bitter personal experience of being a know-all. I almost blew it on the very first occasion I represented the best team I’ve ever been in, when I was convinced a picture was Macauley Culkin, and someone else was sure it was Corrie star/pop star/young Tory star Adam Rickitt. When it came to handing in the picture round, it went a bit like this:

ME: Look, I’m certain, certain I tell you, it’s Culkin. I’ve even seen that very photo. That is what he looks like these days. If you think I’m any good at quizzes at all, trust me on this. I know it.

My team-mate gracefully relented, and I waited smugly till the Quiz Master read out “and Number 13 is … Adam Rickitt …

….

ME: Aah. Pint, anyone? Some nuts? Quavers, perhaps? See you next week, chaps? Chaps? Will there be a next week?

Thankfully, I’d displayed sufficient quiz skills to get asked back, but, if you’re good at quizzes, don’t be that person, I beg you.

In general, whether they’re good at quizzes or not, a loudmouth, a know-all, a domineering personality is not great for either the success or enjoyment of a quiz team. The more so if they’re rubbish but don’t realise it, I suppose.

After a while, a good team will know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, will know that if someone is speaking up, you should listen, while if someone is a bit hesitant and lacking confidence, they’re still worth listening to etc.

The blend and sense of team harmony is probably the most important thing, more important even than a range of ages, backgrounds etc. Having said that, it’s rare, both at pubs and corporate quizzes, to see a winning team that is either only men or only women. The chances are that a good quiz will have been put together to appeal to both genders. Whether stereotypically “male” and “female” areas of knowledge exist and whatever they are, the chances are that a good quiz will cover both, deliberately or otherwise.

This is a surprisingly smooth segue onto the brief section on teams at corporate events. Here, it’s much less likely that team members will be friends, or even all know each other particularly well. Quite often, they’ll have been put together deliberately for networking, so that people who don’t know each other at all are sat next to each other. In some ways this can be helpful, as a team might cover a broader base, but a little too much awkwardness and politeness can be damaging. For the sake of team harmony, a strong player might even have to concede an answer when s/he is all but certain they’re in the right.

Hopefully, by the end of the night, all awkwardness will have disappeared, and people who wouldn’t say boo to each other at the start are screaming at each other, in the friendliest possible way, across the table “I told you it was ****ing 1984, you useless **** ***.”.You get the idea…

If we’re advising clients on how to put teams together from scratch for corporate events, the shared agenda is that we want everybody to have fun, we don’t want any teams to do too badly, we want the quiz to be a fair test, we want people to enjoy each other’s company and get to know colleagues better, and we want people to feel clever and relaxed.

So, we’d usually suggest teams between 4 and 8, we’d suggest mixing up departments, a range of ages, a mix of gender. Hopefully it will come together from there.

There is no perfect quiz team. Maybe the best team in the world hates each other, shouts at each other, is all of one gender, is three people. Maybe, but we hope not.

Who is in your perfect quiz team?