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Quizman’s Holiday

I was lucky enough to attend the pub quiz at the Fox in Putney in its 2005-2006 pomp. Lucky on three fronts 1. it was a great pub quiz 2. I happened to be in a very good team so regularly went home with a bit of cash in my pocket 3. attending that quiz led directly to the job I have been doing for the last six years.

That was my first experience of a QuizQuizQuiz quiz, and it’s not idle promotion of our brand to say it was by far the best pub quiz I’d attended, and up to that point I’d attended quite a lot. I’d not necessarily been a furious all-year-round quizzer like a lot of my colleagues and their associates. If I found a good quiz in my area I’d do it and if my friends invited me along to one I’d do it. As much as I enjoyed quizzes, I sometimes held myself back from doing them because I tended to get a little nervous from the expectation of winning and also rather tetchy at any perceived injustices that might prevent said victory, be it poor marking, poor questions or the knowledge that other competitors were cheating. [Frankly, my former self would be a nightmare for my current incarnation as quizmaster.].

Still, it’s fair to say that I liked a good quiz, and I was good enough at quizzing, as is reflected by the fact that my participation at the Fox led to me getting this job – a very successful and enjoyable interview. The one downside of getting the job was that I could no longer take part in the Fox quiz. I had mixed feelings about the fact that my former team continued to prosper without me, too!

Because the job of running quizzes instantly took up at least two evenings a week, my participation levels dropped. My old team were still taking part in a quiz I was now helping to write, I was tired on my free evenings, I might be a bit quizzed out, also the days of the week I was booked out might vary, so I couldn’t find a regular night. In fact, I haven’t been a regular at a pub quiz since then.

But I have been to plenty of quizzes. And what this post is about (after my rambling introduction!) is what it’s like to attend quizzes when your job is on the other side.

Well, I’d like to say that my former tetchiness and nervous competitiveness had faded as I gained empathy for the tough job a quizmaster has to do, but, in truth, the opposite has happened. I’ve become more horrified at the prospect of not winning, more intent on picking apart bad questions rather than just answering them, more critical of long pauses and mispronounced questions. Even when my team has won, a sign of the success of the evening would be more likely to be me saying “That wasn’t a bad quiz” rather than “Woohoo! We won! I’m rich! Rich beyond my wildest dreams!”

I don’t feel too bad about that though. Running a decent quiz isn’t that hard (not that easy either, mind you) and when they fall below a certain level it is reasonable to hope for better. Indeed the last pub quiz I went to (quite a few months ago) left me thoroughly underwhelmed and grumpy. It had not been written on site (fair enough) but one could tell that whoever had written it (I’m not saying who) had done it without any enthusiasm. Also, an eight minute gap between Question 2 and Question 3 of Round 1 while the QuizMaster said farewell to his girlfriend was unconventional and, dare I say, not wholly successful as a technique for getting the teams to a fever pitch of quizzy delight. I’m sure my eventual disgruntlement had nothing to do with the fact that, for the first time in years (if not ever) my team had finished outside the Top 2. “Look, at the end of the day, if I haven’t won, there’s something  seriously wrong with these questions”. Like any formerly good sportsman past his best, I blamed everything but myself …

But it is interesting what effect running quizzes and writing questions has had on my quizzing skills. Initially, I’d say, all was positive. Scouring the news all week and really getting into the mind of a quizmaster gave me a big advantage. The day I went to a local pub and won on my own by 12 points was the day I realised I had to know fewer facts.

Which is broadly how it’s gone. I’m still in with a good chance at any quiz I take part in, but success is not guaranteed. I think my style of question writing has changed somewhat, for one thing. I’m more looking for the fun fact in what is common knowledge rather than casting around for every possible news story which provides a question. Also, I’m doing more and more “written to order” multiple choice questions for machines/games etc where you tend to focus on a particular topic for a period of time, rather than cover everything under the sun.

So, how are pub quizzes for me now? Well, to be honest, I don’t go to that many anymore, which is rather sad. I still love a good pub quiz, but i wonder if the quality of QuizQuizQuiz quizzes has rather spoilt me. Which is not to say that there aren’t lots of good pub quizzes out there, I think it’s just my time to find them is less than it used to be. I hope that my job doesn’t entirely take one of my favourite hobbies away from me.

If you both run and take part in quizzes, how do you find the experience on both sides of the fence? Does it spoil or enhance the experience of an old-fashioned pub quiz for you?

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?

Born in the 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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?)

Handling Queries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always read the questions

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

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

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

What are your top tips for quiz masters?

Professional quizzers

Is it unfair for seasoned quiz masters – i.e. proper quiz professionals who get paid for running quizzes – to take part in another pub quiz?

My own quiz hosting schedule doesn’t give me much spare time for taking part in pub quizzes, but there are two local to me on Wednesday nights which have generally excellent questions, and good food to enjoy during the quiz.

We were a team of two last night, in an unusually busy pub, and prospects didn’t seem great. Despite doing this professionally, I find that my actual quiz knowledge has deteriorated (or at least not improved) over the years. Most of the time I’m thinking about quiz questions that non-quizzers would enjoy answering, rather than picking up on new things that I should know more about.

Nevertheless, we were in luck, as the pub’s sound system wasn’t working which meant that the music questions had to be scrapped. This is almost certainly why we won, as we are ordinary, at best, on music questions. The quiz master did a remarkable job shouting over the crowd (and even singing one of the music questions well enough for most teams to get it, before he started losing his voice and gave up on the other music questions. If you’re wondering: he sang the theme tune from ‘The Crystal Maze’).

The quiz master suggested that we looked like we might have been genetically engineered to win pub quizzes, the other teams seemed happy enough, and our food bill was taken care of by the prize fund.

Sample questions:

  1. How many points is a drop goal worth in Rugby League?
  2. Solve the anagram: NONDIALECTIC
  3. How was William Joyce better known in World War II?
  4. Identify the only actor or actress to feature in all of: Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd (2007 film), Madagascar
  5. Identify the book that begins with the line: When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
Feel free to submit your answers in the comments below.
Q4 (which I think is very hard) and Q5 (which we should have known) were 2 of the 6 that we got wrong.

 

 

Bright Jackets and Sparkly Bow-Ties

What should a quiz master wear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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