Quiz advice

I am by no means an expert. My time as a quizmaster has very much been guided by standing on the shoulders of giants – picking up all the tricks of the trade from doing quizzes and speaking to experienced quizmasters. Beyond that, it’s all been trial and error.

If I had to try and pass on some advice and also point you towards more wisdom from other sources, here goes:

  • One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, which is devilishly tricky to follow, is to pitch your questions to strike a balance between enjoyment and challenge. You want people to feel they have a chance, so they enjoy the quiz and keep coming back. So aim for 7 or 8 questions per round (assuming rounds of 10) to be ‘easy’ for most people. Then have 1 or 2 which are a bit trickier. In most if not all rounds, you then have a ‘differentiator’ question, which is challenging and will help decide your winner, your podium places and all the rest.
  • Avoid falling into the trap of being an expert. We all have our pet subjects that we can bore the socks off people about. When setting questions we will invariably keep returning to these comfort zones of expertise, but then we fall into the trap of forgetting other people don’t have the same level of knowledge. Equally, compiling questions over time means you inevitably build up a body of ‘useless trivia’ in your memory which again most people don’t possess. Just keep remembering these points and ask ‘how many people would know this stuff?’
  • An easy way to avoid this trap is to flip the question. If we know a topic well, we’ll often ask a more challenging question. So if you’re a fan of WW2 films you might ask ‘what were the names of the three tunnels in The Great Escape?’. This is tricky, but it can be ‘flipped around’: ‘Tom, Dick and Harry are the names of the three tunnels which POWs dug in which famous war film?’.
  • Or you can add a multiple choice. So to stick with the Great Escape example – ‘which of the tunnels – Tom, Dick or Harry – did the POWs escape via in The Great Escape?’. If someone really knows the film, they’ve bagged a point (this would be a differentiator question), but for other punters they still have a 1 in 3 chance of grabbing a point.
  • If you can, write your own questions – I know this is contentious and elsewhere I have provided a link to some other websites with lots of ready-made questions. I tried to avoid these, other than maybe to get ideas for themes which I could then run with. There were two main reasons why I always tried to write my own questions. Firstly, I find it really enjoyable to research and read up on things, though I appreciate this is time consuming (and yes, when I’ve been short on time, I have of course used websites and books to help). Secondly, and for me more importantly, because I had researched the questions, I could a) be confident I knew the answer (or at least it’s source) if challenged and b) I could more easily reword the question or offer a tidbit of a clue if, on reading the room, it was clear the question was harder than I’d thought.
  • Performance, pace and repetition – in terms of actually hosting the quiz, some people are more natural performers than others. If you’re not a natural performer, don’t worry – all quizzers want is clarity. So speak clearly, at a reasonable speed. Repeat each question once. Sometimes I reword the question when I repeat it, because this sometimes makes it easier for some people to grasp. For me, a quiz with fifty questions and a couple of picture rounds takes roughly an hour and a quarter including answers and a quick five minute break at the midway point. You don’t want people to be at it all night, especially if they have work the next day!

If you want advice from better quizmasters than me, try:

  • The advice section on Ken’s Quiz.
  • Aimed at virtual pub quiz organisers during the Covid-19 lockdown, but nevertheless this Wired article some good advice for new quiz organisers.
  • Finally, Alan Connor’s book The Joy of Quiz is a delightful read on Britain’s obsession with quizzing.
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