The First Quiz Night

It’s eight years, almost to the day, since the first QuizQuizQuiz quiz night I helped at. I’d just been told that I’d got the job as the company’s first full time employee (who was not also a founder). Though I’d been interviewed by all the founders, my more important application process was undoubtedly the months I’d been attending the Fox pub quiz in Putney, run by Jack Waley-Cohen, at which I had an ideal opportunity to display my aptitude for the quiz game.

I recall the first quiz night at which I was a quiz assistant: I was helping company director and founder David Brewis in a swish bar near Aldgate, and I took delight in being able to comfortably mark the 13 teams in the short time it took him to read out the answers to each round.

Shortly afterwards, I helped at another event in the grimy upstairs room of a city pub (at QQQ, you get used to working in all kinds of venues) and then I was deemed ready to run my first quiz.

I was not computer illiterate, not quite, but certainly computer ill-adjusted. Though I’d had a bit of time to practice with the technology that we use at our quizzes, it would, sensibly, be a while before I was set free to run a quiz in its entirety – setting up the equipment, playing the music, the video etc.

So I had two helpers for my first quiz – founder-director, Lesley-Anne Brewis, and one of the early investors, James Brilliant (yes, that is his actual name). I was naturally a little nervous, and my nerves weren’t helped by arriving  at the Leadenhall Market (I think it was Leadenhall, it was definitely one of the Markets) nice and early to find that not only was our client not there yet, but the venue wasn’t open, and showed no signs of being so.

After a good few minutes standing outside, everyone necessary (bar staff, quiz helpers and quiz participants) turned up, and we set up, and got ready to go.

I’m not going to pretend it was perfect! I remember just before starting I got it into my head that I would conduct the quiz sitting down, and only Lesley’s frantic whispering to remind me of the first rule of QuizMaster club raised me to my feet.  I also remember, about an hour in, realising that I hadn’t plugged my laptop in and it was rapidly running out of gas. Neither of those are mistakes I have made in the ensuing 8 years.

I don’t remember much else of that night, except that they enjoyed it and clapped at the end, and I was pleased with myself, but still not sure.

By the second one, at a North London school, I was getting into my stride. I had banter, jokes, a bit more fluency, and I knew after that one that I could definitely be good at this.

As is our policy at QuizQuizQuiz, we don’t throw quiz masters in at the deep end. The full process of question selection and multimedia management came gradually over the next few weeks.

The first quiz I was let loose on as a full multimedia extravaganza with no “handholder” was a blazingly hot May day in a hot room at a media company near Euston. It was all a bit random and off-the-cuff, I think I set a speaker up on a pool table and ended up having to start about an hour late because of all sorts of other activities going on.

I think I was too nervous to ask for a glass of water and I did the whole thing, sweating like the whole room, on adrenaline. It went exceptionally well. I got to the allotted finish time and asked if they fancied another round – they shouted their approval. I ended up running three extra rounds and, though it was still early evening the atmosphere was one of drunken delight.

That’s when I realised how much fun it was to be a quiz master, when you and everyone in attendance is of the same mind to have a jolly good time.

At QuizQuizQuiz, we give a guarantee of professionalism and quality. We stand up, we plug our laptops in, and we do all sorts of rather more sophisticated things as we strive to give our absolute best to ensure everyone has a good time. Of course the participating teams play a massive part in that two. That same Euston company taught me that. I was invited back to run the quiz for them a year later, and really looked forward to it.

As I waited for the start of the quiz with that same crowd the next year my host told me “Bit of a strange atmosphere here today, sorry, there’s been a few redundancies …” Aah, ok. Did that affect the atmosphere of the quiz? Yes, of course. Where there’d been delighted shouting the year before, this year there was more restraint and, dare I say it, strain.

I remember raising my game as best I could – I’d improved a lot as a quiz master in the year gone by, and by the end, that atmosphere was great.

Since then, I’ve run 100s of quizzes for different groups in different venues, with different vibes and different purposes. I’ve asked 1000s of questions, I’ve written 10s of 1000s of questions, I’ve even worked out how to use a computer … a bit. This is still my job because I love doing it, as we all do. So, I look back on those first quiz nights, nerves and mistakes and all, with great fondness.

Interactive Quizzes?

Something we often hear from people who’ve just booked a quiz night from us is “We want the quiz to be really interactive”. We take note, but we’re not always entirely sure what this means, as it can mean different things from different people.

Sometimes it turns out that people want there to be lots of use of music and things up on screen, sometimes it means that they want us to use interactive keypads for teams to enter their answers, sometimes it means that they want the quiz master to talk a lot to the teams, but more often than not it simply means that they want the quiz to be lively and fun.

Which, we hope, we can guarantee. The last thing we want is a dry evening where the quiz master sits at a distance, merely reading out questions for individuals to quietly write down their answer in isolation. [Or if the quiz was to be literally un-interactive, the quiz master would read out the questions and answers while everyone just sat back and watched, as they would watch a one-man play]. We want all kinds of interaction, between quiz masters and quiz helpers, between quiz masters and teams, between quiz masters and individuals, between individual team member and, indeed, between different teams (albeit, not answer swapping). That is our idea of an interactive quiz.

Equally, we don’t necessarily go down the “Hello, Team Number 2, what’s your name and where do you come from?” route. We’re not, as such, putting on a show with spectators. We’re running a quiz and we, and our players, overwhelmingly want to get on with it. The banter and the humour, will come naturally over the course of the evening. It’s the questions and the format that matter most, and everything else should be closely related to those. We want to waste as little of your time as possible on non quiz-related matters. The quiz itself is the main vehicle for the interaction our clients are looking for.

Over the years, we’ve developed more and more ways to make our quizzes interactive, with various different lively rounds which require different degrees of noise and movement, of consultation and support, of speed and sometimes of reflection.

So, whatever people mean when they ask us for an interactive quiz, from something very high tech to something very basic, we think we can provide what they need.

The Feel of a Quiz

I’ll probably return to the issue of Minor Quiz Night Complications soon (there are still a couple I’d like to get my teeth into), but while it’s still in my mind, I’d like to write about the somewhat nebulous notions of the “feel” and “rhythm” of a quiz.

Funnily enough, the idea came to me when I was watching film critic Mark Kermode do his weekly blog on the BBC website. It’s usually pretty interesting and the subject matter is varied, but every week it’s somehow exactly the same. His phrasing is the same, his mannerisms are the same, the order, the rhythm, the way he delivers it is always the same. Not a bad thing at all. He probably doesn’t realise he’s doing it, it’s just the pattern he needs to fall into to be able to talk smoothly to camera for five minutes.

Quiz masters have to talk smoothly for upwards of two hours. Sure, we know what we’re going to say, we can make reference to our questions on screen or paper so it’s anything but one long ad lib, but still it’s a long time to be up front with a microphone attempting to maintain complete control of a room and ensuring everyone knows what they’re doing and is having a nice time.

To start with (I started as a quiz master almost 8 years ago) it’s a trip into the unknown. You know what you’re going to ask, but you don’t know how people are going to respond and you don’t know what you’re going to say in between and you don’t know how you’re going to get anyone to do anything. But gradually, as you run more and more quiz nights, you develop a patter, a patter you’re confident in, that comes naturally and unknowingly, and you develop a rhythm, a rhythm which sometimes has more control of you than vice versa.

To some extent, with me, it can be a bit overpowering. Someone might come up to me at the end of a long quiz night and say how well run it was and how much they enjoyed it and while I’m grateful for the praise, if I felt I lost the rhythm, my disappointment will override any satisfaction. It’s the little things. I hate to leave too long between questions, I don’t like to have to repeat questions too many times, any kind of silence (dead air) is anathema.

To the participants, they may not pick up on any of this consciously, but years of experience helps a quiz master to gauge a room, to know that the loss of rhythm will mean participants will be thinking things like “Nice quiz, but when’s my train home”, “Who’s playing in the Champions League tonight?”, “I’m really stupid, I’m no good at quizzes” etc. If I can run the quiz just right, with my flow and my pattern, I feel I can keep those thoughts at bay.

You know what it can be like when you see a stand-up comedian or a band? There’s the big start, the great gags and the roar of laughter, the rush of adrenaline. But then, 10 minutes later (if it’s not a comedian of the highest order) the momentum drops and the chemical comedown can be really crushing. Likewise a gig where a band plays a couple of rather dull slow ones and tunes up interminably in between. In a quiz, we don’t necessarily deal in such large surges of adrenaline, but we just want to keep the right feelings bubbling along.

It’s not like every quiz is the same. Far from it. Being an itinerant quiz master who works for the corporate dollar, every quiz is very different in every way. The venue is different (with the accompanying sound challenges), every crowd is different, the rounds I run change from quiz to quiz, the questions change, the length is different, the helper is different, the prizes are different.

But it’s my rhythm, my feel for the quiz, which allows me to deal (hopefully) seamlessly with those differences.

What am I talking about? What I say at the start, how I structure the questions, the breaks in speech, the time between questions, the hand gestures, the length of musical clips, the way I deal with enquiries, all those things and no doubt plenty more which are even more subsconscious.

From both sides of the fence, do you know what I mean? As a quiz master, are you aware of your own rhythm? And, as an experience quizgoer, can you notice when the quiz master’s “lost it”, when the atmosphere in the room just changes imperceptibly from pro-quiz to indifferent?


Fast Work

It’s obviously very nice when people come to you at the end of an evening and compliment you on the quality of the quiz. It’s particularly gratifying when they pick up on one of the elements that (we think) distinguishes a QuizQuizQuiz quiz from many other quizzes.

One of the most common things people commend us on is not even the quiz master him/herself, but the speed of our marking. When we run a quiz, it is imperative, however many teams there are, that the sheets are marked and the scores for the round ready to be announced by the time the quiz master has finished reading out the answers. So there is immediate feedback on performance when it is fresh, relevant and still exciting, no dead air, no time to wander off and become disinterested. What’s more annoying at a gig than the band spending minutes tuning up between songs?

Over the years, we’ve developed and trained a crack team of superfast, super-efficient markers at our QuizQuizQuiz Fast Track Academy (or something like that!). From a quiz for three teams to a quiz for sixty teams, we’ll make sure we’ve enough competent people to deal with it and keep the quiz running smoothly. Up to around eight teams can, if needs be, be handled by an experienced quiz master on his or her own with no delay to the quiz (though a helper is probably preferred so that the QM doesn’t get too frazzled), up to around twenty by one fast marker, after which it gets exponentially trickier.

Occasionally, a client might simply expect that teams swap sheets at the end of a quiz, as is common practice at pub quizzes. We never do this at a QuizQuizQuiz event. It allows inconsistency, foul play, all kinds of grounds for querying, makes players work when they should be having fun, and is, simply, not as professional. It is also no quicker, if not indeed slower, than having one good marker doing all the sheets.

So how do we keep the quiz flowing with fast marking?

Well, we encourage the teams to be legible, to remember to put their team name at the top, and we cajole them to get their answers in well within the time limit so that the marker can get a headstart.

We want our marker to have a tidy table in front of them and a good system, to know exactly what the round is out of, to be familiar with the questions and to know what variables might be allowed. Indeed the marker has to make their own answer sheet (with help from the quiz master if required) to become really familiar with the answers.

We want them to be unflustered and neat, to be able to communicate clearly with the quiz master at all times, to check their working and, of course, to be competent at basic maths. At the same time part of the skill of our professional quiz masters is to pace the quiz and the giving out of answers in a way that is both natural but also appropriate for allowing the scores for the round to be ready on time.

I remember the first time I attended a QuizQuizQuiz pub quiz, I was amazed at the speed of the marking, but once you get used to doing it, it’s really not that exceptional, just a good, solid system. Sure – it’s more expensive to have a helper, but we think it makes our quizzes better and we are happy that our clients recognise this as well in the quality of our quiz events.

Likewise, I gave a friend who was running a quiz this week a few tips, and the first thing he thanked me for was the instructions on having a helper doing the marking.

To me, it’s a vital part of a good quiz experience.

How does it work at your regular pub quiz? (either that you attend or run?)