“Good Question!”

The way you ask a question – trivial or not – can make a big difference…

Photo by Pierre Bamin

Imagine you have thirty seconds to answer the following trivia question: “Which character from the Guardians of the Galaxy films has a last name that can also refer to a writing instrument?” If you’ve seen the films, you’d probably be able to figure it out fairly quickly since almost all of the main characters in the Guardians movies are aliens, so surnames aren’t particularly relevant. (Correct answer: “Peter Quill.”) But what if the question was phrased like this: “Which character from Avengers: Endgame has a last name that can also refer to a writing instrument?” Well, that’s a lot more last names to sift through. Plus, [SPOILER] Mr. Quill (who, by the way, really should’ve controlled himself regarding Gamora’s fate in Avengers: Infinity War) is only in Endgame at the very end. And so, with just one small change—a purposeful complication—this inquiry becomes a bit more difficult.

The point is, there’s more than one way to ask a question, and when you’re creating trivia contests (which is what I do), there’s significant consideration in deciding how difficult (or not), and how layered, to make a certain inquiry. When you ask a question, in any circumstance—a trivia contest, a classroom, a job interview, even a first date—the way you phrase it, and how leading or not it is, can create either an obvious “pathway” or a myriad of choices to consider.

Photo by Hannes Johnson

Ironically, sometimes when creating trivia questions, leaving it open-ended (that is, not making it multiple choice) can actually make the question unintentionally obvious. For instance, I once wrote a question that asked, “A museum in Austin, Minnesota is based on which food product that was introduced in 1937 and now has more than a dozen varieties?” But when I tested it among family and friends, there would be a slight pause and, pretty quickly, people would just say “Oh…SPAM.” It’s not that easy of a question, but it’s actually even harder to immediately think of other options that could possibly fit the criteria of this set-up (something “old-timey”; lots of varieties; and worthy, even in a kitsch way, of having a museum dedicated to it). So I needed to offer other options that fulfilled these parameters and would serve as distractions. The result:

A museum in Austin, Minnesota is based on which food product that was introduced in 1937 and now has more than a dozen varieties?

      1. Campbell’s Soup
      2. M&Ms
      3. Hershey chocolate
      4. SPAM

Each of these choices, in different ways, is at least possible. (What kid wouldn’t love to visit a museum all about soup, right?) Plus, since my live trivia contests are in the NYC area (although now temporarily on hold), I could assume there might be some awareness of the M&M World store in Times Square as well as Hershey Park in nearby Pennsylvania, which give both of these choices greater credibility. (I even put SPAM as the last choice, as if it’s supposed to be there almost as a “comedic option,” which is a construct sometimes used for multiple choice questions.) It’s still not the hardest question in the world, but the multiple-choice format provides subtle misdirection—not unlike if, when you’re playing chess, you need to divert your opponent’s focus as you set up a series of devastating moves to put them in check.

With all that said, for me, I look at each trivia question as an opportunity. They’re building blocks to create a shared group experience; to encourage fun discussions among teammates; and, most important, to provide an opportunity for an event in which everyone hopefully feels like they’ve contributed to the fun. Which isn’t so trivial at all. : )

Danny Spiegel is Founder/Creative Director of Trivial Events, which produces virtual trivia contests for corporate and private events (and eventually, again at a later point, live events in the NYC area and Northern New Jersey).

 For more info on the Spam Museum: www.spam.com/museum