Overtime, Britain has become THE nation of quizmasters, more or less inventing the concept of pub quizzing. When they are not at the pub, they are on the sofa living the quiz through other people, on shows such as University Challenge and Mastermind. This week, we chatted to Brett Lazer, Head of Trivia at FleetWit – a pub quiz in an app which rewards real cash prizes for knowledge – on how to win a pub quiz, and all things trivia…
Q1) Are there any tips that you’d give for the general trivia user? How can FleetWit users prep for success?
Well, this depends on what kind of trivia you are playing. In the context of pub quiz, my number one tip that I always give out and that I cannot stress enough is that trivia is a team sport. So many times I have been at a pub quiz and nobody on my team has known the answer to a given question, but all of the sudden someone makes a guess, and then another person picks up on that and adds another bit of information, and then the third person hits on the answer. You don’t have to rely on one person just coming up with the correct response on his or her own, you can talk it out, and that’s really what’s fun about it. I find that sometimes in those situations people are embarrassed about making an incorrect guess, or saying something that they think will be seen as stupid, so I always try to be the instigator, get the conversation going so we can at least have a shot at the question. I’ll say the stupid thing so other folks won’t be afraid to chime in. For FleetWit, it is a bit of a different situation. The races are timed, so long spells of reflection won’t get you very far. That said, our scoring algorithm weights accuracy higher than speed, so immediately starting to guess will sink you faster than taking your time. It’s really about having a balanced approach – playing quick but careful. Always pay attention to proper names and years, these are good anchors if you’re trying to parse a question efficiently. And be careful about negative words. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at a question thinking “More than one of these is correct, what is going on?” before realising there was a “not” in the question. At FleetWit we put the negative words in block capitals so you won’t miss them.
Q2) I heard that you and your trivia team have written 29,954 questions for the app’s database! How do you manage to keep such a large amount of questions original and fresh from one another?
It’s certainly quite a task! And I am grateful for the work of our team of amazingly talented freelance trivia writers. We’ve got everything from Ph.D.’s to pop culture junkies, all of whom bring a serious passion for trivia and expertise within a given subject, so we have the luxury of being able to go really deep into a lot of categories. Our “sports czar” ran a baseball podcast for awhile, so even though he’s written thousands of baseball questions for us, he could probably write thousands more. We also make an effort to diversify the kinds of questions we write. For example, many of our questions are in the form of a standard interrogative sentence (e.g. “Which author created the famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes?”) but we’ve also been adding shorter form “Lightning Round” questions where the clues are a lot more concise. For example, our “Name the Author from Works” Lightning Round might feature a question like “The Hound of the Baskervilles / A Scandal in Bohemia / A Study in Scarlet” (Answer: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). This way we can take fun, well-known material and find new and creative ways to ask about it.
Q3) What are the key things to consider when trying to win a pub quiz?
Did I mention that trivia is a team sport? Talk. It. Out. That is how you succeed. If you need a bit of liquid courage to start contributing guesses, well, there’s a reason pub quizzes are held in pubs. Another good thing to bear in mind is that the answer to a question will usually be something you have heard of. Quizmasters hate seeing blank stares because it means people aren’t having fun, and that is really the main point of a pub quiz, to have fun. So good question writers know how to ask questions in a way that even if they are challenging, when you hear the answer you go, “Oh, that makes sense!” If the question is about a comet, the answer isn’t going to be 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, but it might be something like Halley’s Comet or Hale-Bopp, which many people have heard of. In terms of specific things to know, national leaders are always important. Here in the U.S. I always encourage people to be familiar with the presidents. If the question is in any way historical and you are stuck, having some sense of who was the president can kind of anchor your thought process. For the U.K. I imagine Prime Ministers and Monarchs would really come in handy. Oscar and BAFTA award winners are also good to know. Sometimes information about an award will be added to a question as an auxiliary clue (e.g. “Who won a Best Actor Oscar in 1987 for playing . . .”) If you don’t know anything about the information in the rest of the question, but have a good sense of who has won which awards, you can narrow down your guesses pretty significantly.
Q4) How about if I wanted to create my own pub quiz? How do I keep people challenged and engaged with my questions / topics?
In some ways writing your own quiz questions is more fun than playing a pub quiz. You get to write about what you find interesting and then share that with other people. It’s hard to describe, but there is something uniquely rewarding about seeing players pick up on all the little clever tricks and subtle hints that you have laid out in a series of questions. In general, it’s best to write about what you find fun. If you aren’t passionate about a subject, then that is going to come though in the question. That said, you do have to keep your audience in mind. I once wrote a whole category about the First Golden Age of Television in the U.S. which was in the 50s and 60s. I thought it would provide some interesting perspective on the proliferation of great TV shows we have today (termed by some the Second Golden Age of Television). So I wrote questions about some of my favourite shows from that era like The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy and everyone hated it. Turns out 1960s TV isn’t widely popular these days, go figure. I’m a Classic Hollywood guy, so in the end I realised I was really writing the questions for myself, and at the actual quiz everyone was waiting for me to get to the next category. In that vein, it is always better to skew more toward pop culture than academic subjects, and to skew more recent than historical. The cross-section of recent and pop culture is where you are going to find the broadest range of people have the greatest familiarity, and so those are the questions that most people will find fun. Also, it’s best to err on the side of too easy rather than too hard.
This is for a couple of reasons. First, when you’re writing the question it is likely something you know a lot about, or, if not, then you have the Encyclopaedia Britannica up on your computer in front of you. So everything seems easy when the facts are right there and you know what the answer is. But when your audience is at a pub and has no idea what the next question is, everything becomes a lot more difficult. In general, questions will always seem harder than you think they are, so shade everything a bit easier when you are writing to correct for that. Secondly, people have more fun when they get questions right than when they get them wrong. I’ve had people walk out of pub quizzes because they were doing poorly. No one walks out when they are getting a lot of questions right. That doesn’t mean they should all be gimmes, but I like to shoot for ~70% correct answer rate. Finally, you should definitely do some test runs before you go pitch yourself to a pub. Write some questions, have some friends over, put out some drinks and snacks, and play some trivia. I guarantee you that you’ll have a blast, and you’ll get a sense of how people respond to your trivia questions.
Q5) Why do you think trivia is such a popular phenomenon and why do you think there is a huge trend in people playing it via an app?
Honestly, I think people are playing trivia on apps because people will do anything on an app. That’s just the culture we live in – if you can do it there’s an app for it. So it was just a matter of time before trivia was going to be ushered into the world of apps. Why it is so popular is a more interesting question to me. Trivia is about facts. There is so much differing information out there; we are awash in competing interpretations of reality. But there is only one current capital of Paraguay. Trivia becomes an anchor in a world where so much information seems contingent and unmoored. There’s no fake news in trivia. In addition, I think there is something fun about imposing this artificial barrier to information. If we want to know who directed The Godfather , we can immediately look it up and find out not only who the director was but the whole cast, who wrote the score, how many Oscars it won, and what the running time is. But playing trivia, you have rely on your memory. You intentionally eschew all the crutches you rely upon for knowledge and take your brain out for a spin unaided. In that way, there is something almost nostalgic about it. We no longer need to know facts off the top of our heads, so knowing things has become sport.
Q6) I hear you were a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire! How do their questions compare to trivia apps, such as FleetWit? Do you have any favourite UK quiz shows?
Indeed I was! It was my first time on a game show, and I had a total blast. Millionaire questions are very different from questions on a show like Jeopardy! , say. They start off really easy and then at a certain point a switch flips and they get really hard. They want you to win some money, but I don’t think they really want to give out a million dollars. So at a certain point the questions get very tricky – impossible to know offhand and really tough to guess. It’s a great model and makes for quite a fun show. In a sense, the Millionaire questions are a lot like HQ Trivia. In HQ, they have to narrow down the pool, so at a certain point the questions start featuring a lot of red herrings to try to lop off big chunks of players. There is something very satisfying about getting deep into a HQ game and knowing that you were able to avoid the tricks and traps. FleetWit is closer to Jeopardy! . First of all, we have lots of different categories so you can choose what subjects you think are fun. And we strive to make our questions very straightforward. You’re not playing against “the house”, rather you’re playing against other people so we want our quizzes to be as fair a test of knowledge as possible – the person who knows the most wins. In answer to your second question, I can’t way I’ve watched many UK quiz shows, but we do a lot of work with Mark Labbett (“The Beast”) so I feel like I should get more into UK game shows. Which ones do you recommend?