Only Connect's Question Master Tells Us How to Write and Host the Perfect Quiz

By James O Malley on at

Yesterday, we spoke to Jack Waley-Cohen about how to win a pub quiz. He should know, after all - the serial TV quizzer runs QuizQuizQuiz, a company that devises questions and formats for TV, and supplies hosts for pubs. He’s also currently the question setter on BBC Two’s Only Connect.

You might think that writing or hosting a quiz is easy - you just think of some questions, right? But there’s much more to it than that, as I found in round 2 of our conversation.

Round 2: How To Write The Perfect Quiz

So how do you write a good question? Jack thinks that you have to be ready to note down ideas when inspiration strikes.

“It's quite easy to write questions once you’ve got an idea”, he says, “getting ideas is the difficult bit.”

“For me question writing is just constantly noting things down on my phone as I spot them as I think 'ooh that's interesting, I never knew that, I haven't heard about that before', then you have a question writing session where you go through the notes and see what interesting things there are, and craft it in an interesting way. so one of the best tips I’d give is that question writing is a permanent thing. it's not just 2 hours sitting in front of a computer.”

He gave me some examples from the list of notes on his phone at the moment.

“Consecutively I've got a note that says ‘multilingual versions of frozen’ because I saw a Disney video online. I’ve got ‘the song that David Cameron hummed when he walked away from the podium when resigning”, "John Travolta calls Idina Menzel ‘Adele Dazeem’ at an awards ceremony’, ‘what is wider: the balance beam in athletics or the base line in Wimbledon?’”

Though it is also important to exercise some quality control.

“The other thing is to be aware of when things are very ephemeral they aren't that interesting. So in a way noting things down and coming back to them a month later helps as you have a bit of perspective on whether this thing is still interesting.”

“That David Cameron humming song - it's starting to feel a bit less interesting now whereas at the time it was quite exciting, like maybe it was going to be a thing”.

Once you’ve thought of a question, the next thing to figure out is will anyone be able to answer it. Again, given how wide the field of “general knowledge” is by definition, how can a quiz writer possibly calibrate the difficulty of questions so that a quiz is hard enough, but not too hard? Jack told me that he’s at an advantage with this because quizzing is his job.

“This is one of the hardest things”, he told me - but because his company specialises in making quizzes, it means that he has lots of opportunities to try questions in real world environments.

“You're standing at the front and you're asking the questions that you think are easy or hard or medium, and you see the looks on everyone's faces when you ask a question... and then you see them clicking and leaning forward and working things out. You get this kind of real time feedback and that puts me and those of us who have done that before in the unusual situation of seeing large numbers of people trying to answer each question over and over again.”

This sort of feedback appears to be invaluable, as Jack learns when he works with clients to prepare quizzes.

“Almost invariably we'll get misguided comments about how this feels too hard or this feels too easy, and without sounding too blunt.. they're always wrong".

Now we know about how to ask questions - but what’s the best quiz format? Should a quiz be designed to reward skill, or should it include an element of chance? For example, some pub quizzes - and many quiz shows - have rounds where, say, points are doubled if all of the answers in the round are correct and so on. This means that the smartest team over all may not be the winning team. But does this make for a good quiz? Here’s Jack’s take on the format:

“It’s quite nice to try to balance things out a little bit by adding in a few more uncertain elements. If I’m putting together a round or a quiz night for a pub quiz type event you want a range of different rounds because you want to break it up for momentum and timing and pacing. You want some rounds that are going to be a bit faster, some that are a bit slower - there’s no rule that says all rounds have to be the same length.”

“You often see quizzes that are like 6 rounds of 10 questions or 4 rounds or 20 or whatever. You don't need to do that - you can have round 1 being a nice quick 10 question round, and then have a slightly meatier round 2 that's maybe got 15 questions and maybe a few of them are really puzzley-thinky multi-parters, so I like to mix-up the pace.”

“I think generally something we have to remember about quizzes is that [they are] one of the few things that lots and lots of people can enjoy at the same time. One way to ruin that is to have an entire round on one topic. I know that's very counter-intuitive as you'll go to a pub quiz and you'll have ‘here's the sport round’ or ‘here’s the music round’. If you don't like sport you're alienated for 15 or 20 minutes and if you don't like music you're alienated for 15 or 20 minutes.”

“I think a lot of the best pub quizzes and the best quiz rounds just mixes things up, either in rounds or across the quiz. You can have some kind of theme, maybe it's all the answers in this round have 8 letters in the answer or they've all got 3 answers, or they're all something to do with the colour blue or something like that. Finding ways to theme but to allow yourself to include as much as possible in as shorter space of time.”

It’s important to mix up the types of answers players give too.

“The other thing that we’re always quite sharp on each other about in putting together quizzes is making sure that you have a diversity in types of answer line.”

“Often when you see less experienced quiz writers writing stuff you'll get a round of 10 questions and 7 of the answers will be someone’s name”, Jack says - pointing out that places, colours, numbers, dates, and descriptions make good answers too.

And one final piece of advice? Don’t make it too hard. Seriously.

“Don’t be afraid of putting in really easy questions. You want to let people build up a bit of momentum - give them a couple of easy questions to get them going, and make them work a little bit harder on other ones. Don't underestimate the ability of people to get things wrong. It's okay if people get things right. I think the worst thing you can have is 10 really hard questions in a row - you definitely want to try and mix things up.”

And curiously the use of easy questions has one other benefit: It is an effective nudge for dissuading cheats - a perennial problem for pub quizzes in the age of the smartphone.

“If you start off with questions that are too hard you're going to encourage people to cheat because they can't do it.”, Jack explains, “if you start off with questions that are relatively easy and they can do it, or that are easy to work out and you give them a chance to do it then they're much more likely to enjoy the quiz in the way that it should be done rather than thinking ‘sod this’ and get their phone out and start looking things up.”

And there you have it - the perfect recipe for a quiz. Just make sure you have varied question formats, don’t bother with categories and don’t make it too hard, and you should be on your way to becoming the next Richard Osman.

Go back and read Part 1 of this feature here. You can find out more about what Jack does on his own website, or on QuizQuizQuiz.