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Quiz Night Ideas

A quiz night can just be (and often is) 10/20/30/40/50 fairly random general questions asked in succession. That can make for a great quiz. There doesn’t have to be some overarching concept, there don’t have to be different rounds. Very often, if a quiz is split into rounds, it’ll be, say, 6 rounds of 10 subjects eg Geography, Entertainment, Sport, History, Music, General Knowledge, and again, that can make for a great quiz.

That’s usually not how it works on TV, of course. There have been a few overwhelming simple formats for TV shows (simpler even than 15-to-1) but generally, TV executives/audience want something devious/exciting/clever to hook onto, something that makes the quiz more than just a quiz, and more of a show.

Perhaps led by this, real life quiz nights have become more imaginative. No one wants to drown the sanctity of a fine, solid quiz question in “concept”, but we at QuizQuizQuiz, and numerous other folk who take the business of running quizzes seriously, have tried to find various ways to make the quizzes we run as fun/exciting/interactive/engaging (pick your buzzword!) as possible.

Because I’m a geek (though I pretend not to be) I recently passed my mind over all the quiz nights I’ve ever run for QuizQuizQuiz to see how many distinct round formats there had been (not even just rounds with different names but with the same basic idea). The answer is almost 50, and the funny thing is only about 5 of those are defined by a basic subject matter.

One round that has featured in almost every quiz I’ve ever run is “Music” – no tricks, nothing clever, it’s a music round, mainly involving “Name the artist” clips and a few other things, then there’s “Sport” but these days I include a full Sport round in barely 1 in 5 quizzes. Apart from that, it’s very rare to have any kind of subject-based round – sometimes our client has asked us to do one specially and we’ve obliged, but on the whole, apart from Sport and Music, our rounds are essentially mixed subject, but held together by an idea. (Indeed, even the sport and music rounds can be mixed subject – just with a sport/music theme to them).

So, as a quiz master and question writer, I’m not just thinking about questions, I’m trying to think of round ideas, round ideas that mean a QuizQuizQuiz quiz night incorporates the full armoury of tricks and treats at our disposal, that no one feels left out, that different parts of the brain are utilised, that people are moving, laughing, listening, talking, that the quiz is “interactive” (whatever that means), challenging, varied and fair.

The ideas for those 40-odd rounds have come from various places – sometimes they’re pretty self-explanatory and floating around the quiz ether, sometimes they’re forced upon us by circumstances, sometimes it’s about thinking of a good way to use a new piece of technology. Some round ideas have worked better than others – nothing should be too complicated, nothing too long or too short, rounds should allow variety and hopefully make good use of video and audio clips and a few other tricks that we keep up our sleeves.

The important thing is that our quiz nights have not stayed the same since we began over a decade ago. Sure, some ideas last, and some round ideas have been used regularly by all our quiz masters over a long period of time, but we’re always trying to mix it up. The average format of a quiz I run has changed significantly in the last year, let alone in the last five years.

No matter what the rounds are, one thing that always drives the format of an evening is that we do everything we can to ensure (even guarantee!) that they come with quality questions and plenty of fun.

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’…

Confex

In March, for the first time, we decided to exhibit at a trade show, specifically Confex at London Olympia, a two-day event for people in the conferences and events industry.

There were stalls belonging to everything from hotels to singers to events companies to ice cream stands to Austin Powers impersonators. There were a lot of extremely impressive stands and big screens and people with clipboards and there was plenty of free coffee.

Since QuizQuizQuiz began, over 10 years ago, we’ve run quizzes at all sorts of events – fundraisers, after work bashes, client events, school competitions, nothing too big or too small. We’ve run plenty of quizzes at conferences too. Usually, these take place at nice hotels outside London, they often take place over dinner, they’re pretty fancy, there are usually various people buzzing around, organising. We’ve gained loads of experience in how to adjust and adapt our quizzes to make them work perfectly for that kind of event.

Sometimes they’re just a way to relax and unwind at the end of a long day, sometimes they’re integral to the team building aspect of the week.

Either way, we’ve been looking to increase the number of Conference quizzes we do, because we do them well, because we suspected it was a relatively untapped market, and because they’re fairly lucrative.

Our suspicions that it was a relatively untapped market were pretty well confirmed at Confex. We spoke to a lot of people who had never considered holding a quiz night at a conference. We were hopefully able to persuade them that it was a workable idea and to explain to them how it would work.

Various members of the QuizQuizQuiz came down and some of us were more natural salesmen and women than others! Rather than try to pretend we were something we’re not, we emphasized the fun element of what we do. We engaged people with picture rounds and quiz questions and gave away a lot of jelly beans. We ran a few ad hoc buzzer rounds and generally tried to give people something enjoyable as they wandered round what occasionally could have been quite a dry event.

Time will tell how much new business we brought in. We’re already seeing positive results. We happen to think that a quiz night, especially a QuizQuizQuiz quiz night, works wonders in almost every context, and sometimes it’s worth making the effort to explain that to people who might not have considered it before.

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!)

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 Hosts with the Most

This blog post is about trained and skilled professionals doing a better job than non-professionals. And specifically about trained and skilled professional QuizMasters doing a better job than people who are not professional quiz masters (even though they may be professionals in something that may appear to be similar).

We run around 250 hosted quizzes per year, most of which are run from start to finish by one of the highly trained QuizQuizQuiz QuizMasters. And we do it very well, we think, and our clients think.

There’s a decent-sized minority of those quizzes (10-15 a year or so) which we don’t run. We prepare the quiz, we are in attendance on the night making sure everything runs to schedule, we play the music and the audio clips, we do the marking, but someone else is on the mic. Often this is a celebrity host, sometimes it is someone from within the company who wants to run the quiz themselves.

Sometimes it’s at the lower end of “celebrity” (someone that quite literally nobody at the quiz has heard of or recognises – i.e. a circuit stand-up comedian), sometimes it’s a really impressive and prestigious star of TV. Whoever it is, almost without exception … no, I’m being overly diplomatic … without exception, it’s not as good as if we run it ourselves. [If you think this is being arrogant then do a quick thought experiment: imagine a stand-up comedian doing his stuff. Then imagine him trying to prepare material for someone else to deliver: someone who has never done stand-up comedy before, someone he has never met, and someone with whom he might get a maximum of half an hour to brief before the gig. You get the idea.]

I said “almost” above because there is one gentleman I’ve helped run a quiz, who really does hold the audience in the palm of his hand, but a) he’s working a crowd from an industry within which he’s a respected, beloved figure and b) he’s run the same quiz with us several years in a row, so he knows how our quizzes work, so he doesn’t need the constant instruction and prompting.

And even then, however good he is, I’d still say the quiz would be better if one of our hosts was running it.

I can hear you saying “You gotta lotta noive, kid, thinkin’ you’re some kinda big shot who runs a classier quiz than all doz celebrities” (in the imaginary slang of mid-20th century American gangsters I envisage you’re speaking). But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything else in the world I’d be better at than these esteemed hosts except running quizzes (and specifically QuizQuizQuiz quiz nights). But, these, yes I do. Because this is what I do, and what my professional QuizMaster colleagues do, often several times a week.

If a client books us, they hopefully realise they’re booking the whole package, they’re booking us because they know about the quality of our quizzes and the way our quizzes work. It’s not just reading out questions, it’s an awful lot more. It’s choosing the questions, adapting the questions, pacing the quiz, adapting the pacing of the quiz, playing the music, getting the sound right, judging the mood, making last minute adjustments, it’s being quick, efficient and thoroughly well-informed and confident in the material. [again, think back to the comedian analogy…you’ve got to believe in and understand your material to be able to sell it to the crowd]

Often, a client who has their own host in mind is surprised when we inform them that will mean a significant rise in the price we charge (not to mention the additional cost of paying a separate host). Surely it’s less work for us? On the contrary, it’s significantly more work for us. More work preparing the quiz in advance, making sure the questions make sense to the quiz master, providing instructions to them, dealing with any feedback, giving them a script for round introductions, going through the quiz with them before the event, whispering into their ear regularly, reminding them of instructions they’ve forgotten to give, little asides which will make a question work better. Also the quiz usually still goes out under our brand name. In a way the additional costs also compensate us for the reality that the quiz will not be as good as a QuizQuizQuiz quiz should be.

I get way more nervous if I’m helping someone run a quiz than if I’m running it myself. For the latter, I turn up, do my job, and I’m in control. If I make a mistake, I can make a joke of it whilst still retaining complete control. I know how to deal with every eventuality.

So much more can go wrong if someone outside our company is running the quiz, and it’s our reputation that suffers.

How many ways is the quiz better if we run it ourselves? Too many to list. Here are a few. It’s adaptable, in terms of subject matter, rounds and difficulty levels. Every question is understood and treated with enthusiasm and never tossed away as if it is doesn’t matter. Answers can be given out with maximum effect: if there’s a reaction to be had, we will get it. There isn’t someone whispering in the host’s ear all night. There are no awkward silences. Every opportunity to inject energy, entertainment and fun into the quiz can and will be taken. The QuizMaster will not start flagging after the first hour (there aren’t many celebs or stand-up comedian who are used to performing at full energy for 2-3 hours single-handedly – it takes a lot of practice and training to be able to keep it up for that long, as it were) Need I go on?

Like I say, this is a notable minority of our quizzes, and we always make it work, and make it good, and often the guest hosts are really good, engaging, smart, adaptable and charismatic. It’s often a real pleasure to see them getting the hang of how to make a quiz work really well, and gaining confidence in the whole thing as the evening progresses.

But there’s not one quiz which any of our quiz “hand-holders” leaves and doesn’t think “I wish I’d run that. It would have been much better.” And since we are obsessed about running truly outstanding high quality quiz nights, this makes us a little bit sad from time-to-time – sad for our clients who have made a decision (for one reason or another) that means they will not have the best possible quiz night.

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?

 

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!

How long is a piece of quiz?

When people book a quiz night with us, they can book us, as long as we have availability, for whenever they like and for as long as they like.

But that is not to say that we don’t have a good idea of how much time a good quiz should take up. We can make a 20 minute quiz great and we can make a three hour quiz great, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be a bit better if they were closer to the optimum length.

I’m going to carry on with my theme of comparing quizzes to other forms of entertainment. How long is a good gig? Generally if you get less than an hour, you feel short-changed, and if it’s over two hours, you’re running out of puff. There are exceptions, of course. I saw Leonard Cohen last month and the old genius played for three hours (including a 20 minute break) and it was all magnificent. But, two things 1)  to my chagrin, I had to leave a minute before the end of the final song of the 3rd encore, otherwise I would get caught in the crowd leaving and definitely miss the last train home. As it was I only just made it (as you can tell, I’m finding it hard to forgive myself) 2) Leonard Cohen is a legend of 20th century culture who I and 20,000 other people felt privileged to be in a room with. QuizQuizQuiz QuizMasters are all excellent at our job, but we don’t presume to hold such personal sway!

We provide entertainment. When a gig is entertainment (as opposed to recital/masterclass), it has an optimum length (1 1/2 hour- ish), as does a film (between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2, and even 2 1/2 is pushing it, take note The Hobbit etc). A masterful work-of-art film, watched by real fans and buffs, may take longer to unravel, but again, we know, as QuizMasters, we are not creating a work of art.

Furthermore, a quiz is a participatory experience – it is more mentally draining than a film or a gig. 3 hours of quiz could give anyone brainache!

What else? Booze. We’ve written before about the role of booze in a quiz. it’s unavoidable and it’s also perfectly welcome. But I think we all know a room full of people drinking for 2 hours has a very different atmosphere and attention span to a room full of people drinking for 3 hours.

I’m pretty happy running a quiz for anything between an hour and two and a half hours, but I do think 1 1/2 – 2 hours is optimum. This gives time for a real momentum, a real test of different subjects, a spread of scores to develop, for the cream to rise to the top, for any quietness and reticence at the start to be completely overcome, but it also means that people don’t begin to get quiz fatigue.

We do often get asked to do longer quizzes, sometimes people will book us from 7 to 11, but we are usually able to persuade people that is a bit long.

The thing is, people may be used to slow and steady quizzes with long gaps between rounds where the marking is done, lots of general awkward spaces, and 3-4 hours time being just enough time for, say, 100 points. Because of the way we run our quizzes, with the speed of marking and emphasis on pacing and flow, we can probably fit in more in a shorter space of time (while also giving people plenty of time to think).

All the timings I have given have not mentioned breaks. Breaks are also an important part of the evening. Again, there is probably an ideal of one break, of 15 to 45 minutes, depending on what food people have. More than one break, for whatever reason, can shatter momentum, as can one break which is too long. However, if I’m doing any quiz of over an hour and a half, even if a break is not written in to the evening, I’d recommend one – and usually put one in, if only to avoid a mass cigarette/loo/fresh air exodus at a point where a sudden, temporary emptying of people will affect the momentum of the quiz (and indeed my control of that momentum).

So, what’s the optimum? Honestly. Notwithstanding “we’ll fit into any schedule”, true though that is.

I like a quiz that starts at 7 (with people hanging around and having a drink or two for half an hour or so beforehand), breaks for half an hour at 8, finished by 9.30. Perfect. It’s amazing how many event planners see things exactly the same way. I’ve probably done more quizzes that fitted that precise time frame than any other. Within that time, I’ll be able to fit in up to 9 rounds of different lengths, pacing and format, including picture rounds and buzzers, and there will be 100+ available points. That seems like plenty!

How long is the quiz you run, or take part in? Could it be longer or shorter, and how do you maintain people’s interest for the length of time?