How To Run a (Good) Trivia Night

I get a lot of emails from people asking for advice on how to put together trivia nights. They are usually from people who are just in the planning stages of their first event, and they want to know how to get started. Now seems like a good time to write a quick guide to producing a high quality trivia event for those of you thinking about fund raising with trivia.  Keep in mind, I’m talking about regular area trivia nights that are being organized to raise money for clubs or organizations.  A lot of these rules of thumb go out the window for special events put together for things like covering medical expenses for a sick child where obviously every penny is important.

  1. Pick a date wisely.  Trivia nights on Saturdays always get a bigger crowd, especially during football season when the high school teams will keep half the town busy with games.  Try to schedule your event on a night when there’s nothing else going on around town – especially other trivia nights.
  2. Get a good venue.  There are large banquet halls and conference rooms that are perfect for trivia nights.  The average banquet hall around Springfield will accommodate 20-30 tables comfortably, and set you back $800-1000 for the night, unless you can work out something for free like a church hall or school gym.
  3. If you decide to write the trivia yourself, take the job seriously.  Don’t just grab some questions from the internet and call it a day.  You’re asking 300 people for $10 of their hard-earned money.  Earn it.  Plan to come up with 10 categories with 10 good questions.
  4. Unless you decide to do a theme night (sports, 80s, sci-fi, etc), try to vary your categories to include things like history, geography, movies, tv, music, sports, pop culture, literature, science, and wordplay.  You’ll want to start with a list of ten general categories that you want to include in the event, and then narrow the focus where you think it’s appropriate.  You could do very generic rounds, but it’s more interesting for players if you turn “history” into “First Ladies” or “movies” into “The Filmography of Will Smith”.
  5. Writing the perfect set of questions is an art.  Too hard, and you frustrate everybody in the room.  Too easy, and you kill the possibility of come-back drama in the late rounds.  If it’s your first time writing questions, PLEASE don’t do it yourself.  When you’re finished, give them to a sharp 8th grader and the smartest person you know.  The 8th grader should be able to answer 20-30.  Your genius friend should have no problem answering 60-70 alone.  If your genius friend falls below 50, you have problems with your questions.  If the 8th grader gets more than 50, you have problems with your questions.  Of course, you could aways hire someone to write for you.
  6. $10 is the right amount to charge for an entry fee in Springfield unless you’re also including a meal in which case, $15-$20 is fine.
  7. Speaking of money, remember that you’re running a contest – not putting out a collection plate.  As with any contest, there should be prizes…and the prize for winning 1st place should not be getting your entry fee back.  Organizers are getting miserly with the prizes lately, and as good as that might seem for the fund raising part of trivia nights, in the long run it’s killing interest among those ‘circuit’ players who have kept these events busy for the past 15 years in Springfield.  Your aunt Mabel may like sitting around a table snacking and chatting for 3 hours for no reason, but the serious trivia player is there to win.  If your 2nd place prize is $75, the second best team at your event LOST money by participating.    If you’re wondering why only 5 teams have signed up for your event, check your prizes.
  8. Equipment you’ll need on the night of the event:
    1. PA System – if your venue doesn’t supply a PA, you’ll want to have one that’s powerful enough to reach the tables in the back of the room.
    2. If you’re doing a slideshow, you’ll need a computer with presentation software, a projector and a screen (or wall).  You’ll also want to plan your setup to include enough space for your projector.
    3. With more than ten teams, you’ll probably want a spreadsheet-based scoreboard.  This means you’ll need another computer, spreadsheet software (Excel, Numbers), and another projector/screen setup.  If you don’t have enough room for another projector, use a large dry-erase board.
    4. Keep in mind that technology is not always your friend.  Multimedia is a great addition to trivia nights, but always remember Murphy’s law when you’re relying on computers, projectors, PA systems, etc.  If you have categories that rely on anything with audio, video, or graphics – make sure you have backup categories in your pocket, just in case the technology gremlins are out to get you at game time.  This is when it’s handy to remember the old-school Ursuline Academy trivia nights, where the questions were simply read from a sheet of paper.  Bells and whistles are great, but good barebones trivia is better than flashy stuff that nobody can see when the projector bulb blows.
  9. Materials you’ll need on the night of the event:
    1. Answer sheet packets – 10 sheets with 10 lines and a place for the teams to write their table number.  That’s a minimal design requirement.  You’ll probably want to get a little fancier, but don’t make the sheets confusing with unnecessary design elements.
    2. Judges’ keys.  I usually do the answer sheets first, then go back into the file and type in the answers.  This makes a perfect key for the judges to use.  Print as many of these as you need based on the number of judges you’ll have.
    3. Pens
    4. Scrap paper.
    5. Some way of numbering the tables.  Usually this is just a sheet of paper with a number printed on it, but table tents, balloons, and other knickknacks have been used too.
  10. On the night of the event, your venue will usually set the room up however you want and have it ready for you with plenty of time for your A/V setup, which should take about an hour.  When the electronics are set, get the answer sheet packets, pens, and scratch paper on the tables.  Then make sure you have your table number markers in place.
  11. You’ll need a few people, besides the host to pull off a good event.  Plan on a judge for every 5-10 teams, someone to take the money at the door – or collect money from the tables if that’s how you want to do it, people to man concessions if you offer them, and various runners.
  12. Open the doors about an hour before the start time.  Give a few start time announcements and with about five minutes to go, tell people to start finding their seats.  If the line at the bar is long, give it a few minutes.  Otherwise, do try to start on time.
  13. Watch the pace.  You should be aiming for under 3 hours for your 10 rounds, so that players are heading home by 10pm.  Any longer, and it starts to drag.  Taking a couple of breaks into account, budget about 15-20 minutes for each round of trivia.  If you’re wrapping up round 3 at 8:30, you need to pick up the tempo.
  14. Breaks.  We usually do a couple of short bathroom breaks after rounds 3 and 7, and a longer halftime break after round 5.  Your mileage may vary on this, so play it by ear.
  15. Don’t expect the winners to donate the prize money back.   If $1000 isn’t enough profit for one night, find another kind of event to raise your money.  Yes, it’s very possible to make double or triple that at a well-run trivia night, but if you go in with a baseline expectation of $1000 profit AFTER prizes, then you won’t feel like you have to shake down the winners.  Besides, there are lots of ways to make extra cash at trivia nights.
  16. HAVE FUN.

I know a silly blog post can’t possibly cover everything that goes into running a decent trivia night.  If you have any questions or want some advice, send me an email.

NOTE:  I used to rant against Mulligans here, but it’s clear they are here to stay.  I’ve softened on them a little over the years, but I still wish event organizers would come up with a better implementation.

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Written by Russ

Russ Friedewald has been producing and hosting trivia events since 1999 and started SpringfieldTrivia.com in 2003 to keep track of the trivia nights going on in the Springfield area. He started Trivia Workshop in 2013.

15 Comments

  • Lisa (#)
    November 10th, 2010

    Great advice. Succinct and very helpful for people considering having an event like this. Thanks!

  • Johann (#)
    November 10th, 2010

    LOVE this post, Russ. The questions at that last trivia night you and I both attended were ridiculously simple. And I COULD consider putting my hatred of mulligans down to a simmer if, as you suggested, they were used as the “two possible answers” scenario rather than a “buying free answers” scenario.

    And bravo on addressing the writing of the questions. The “comeback drama” you mentioned is what allowed my table to win at Cathedral’s trivia night last Saturday. We were down 5 after 3 rounds, were in the hunt for third place after 7 rounds, and came back to win by 6 after acing the last two rounds. I never really thought about the intricacies and complexities of writing trivia questions until I took your quiz on this website earlier this year. I mean, sure, trivia contests are essentially a “who retains the most useless knowledge” contest, but knowing that Don Hoak played 3B for the Pirates in 1960 may simply mean you saw the movie “City Slickers”, whereas knowing his career batting average (which I do not) may mean the difference between first and second place. In other words, the ability to spew information is one thing; actual knowledge of certain subjects is completely another. That’s why it’s important not just to have friends and family on your team with you for a good time, but to have the RIGHT group of friends and family- and that “right group” can change with each event. That geek in your office that you make fun of for memorizing every episode of “Three’s Company” may just put you in the money one night, and then be of absolutely no help at the next.

    Unless, of course, the hardest question asked all night is “What were the names of the ghosts that chased Pac-Man?”.

    And my personal opinion is that the 3rd place winner should receive their money back as a prize, and the top 2 finishers should actually WIN money. Without being goaded into giving it back.

    I applaud you, good sir!

  • Dan (#)
    November 11th, 2010

    Well done.

    May I be so bold as to an 11th point? Please don’t try to pass off Bud Light, Bud Select, Miller Lite and Mich Ultra as a “beer selection.” It’s all the same stuff – watered down American-style lager. At least one foreign or craft beer should be offered as a sign of your hospitality and good taste. Popcorn and pretzels are also nice and can be comped or sold at a nominal price.

  • Johann (#)
    November 12th, 2010

    Good call, Dan.

  • […] are other sources of contention regarding trivia nights, but they’ve been covered in numerous places, and covered far better than what I can do here. (The site to which I linked is run by a […]

  • On Writing Questions (#)
    November 27th, 2010

    […] in that post I wrote about putting together a good trivia night, I made it a point to bring up question quality, but I didn’t really get into HOW to write a […]

  • Roger Deem (#)
    November 10th, 2011

    Let me add a little to the prize money comments. If you are offering prizes then the winners have EARNED the right to walk out the door with the money. It’s theirs. You should never expect it back, just feel blessed when they make that choice. And absolutely never play the guilt card.

    Our team played in an event last spring which we won and gave half of the prize money back. Their response was to call us rather unpleasant names as we left. That guaranteed that our team of 10 would never be back with our registration fees, 50/50 and auction money and food expenses. That plus the fact that the two emcees were so tanked by the 7th round that no one could understand the questions.

    I know I am talking to minds permanently set in concrete on the next issue but we always use mulligans. My standard response to the very few who choose to abstain is that I am not running a trivia competition. I am running a fundraiser. All of my events are conducted on behalf of some charitable concern and I am quite happy to rake in the easy money mulligans provide.

    Somehow I don’t think the concrete has cracked any! 🙂

  • jody (#)
    October 23rd, 2014

    I am having my first triva at a kareoke bar HELP HELP HELP
    Warmly jody

  • Patty (#)
    January 20th, 2015

    I would like to organize a Trivia Crack tourney for our small, rural jr high/high school. Does anyone have any experience doing this or know someone who has? Would really appreciate hearing about it. Our students, like many people from all over, love this app and I’d like to capitalize on their interest in knowledge!! 🙂
    Thank you!

  • Damien Cook (#)
    November 22nd, 2015

    This is all very good advice. My team have built an answering buzzer app solution to eliminate pen, paper and cheaters at trivia nights. Full disclosure: I am the product manager and the developer. Look up ‘tapAquiz’ if you are interested in such an offering. Good luck with your fund-raising and game nights. Love them.

    Damien

  • Alise Harper (#)
    June 23rd, 2016

    I own a bar and am thinking about having a drinking trivia game night every month or so. I liked how you mentioned hiring a professional to do the do the trivia game. I think this would a good idea to hire someone because they have had experience with trivia games and know what questions to ask and it would save me time that I could be focusing on the bar. Thanks for the great idea, I can’t wait to try this out at my bar!

  • Steve Thiel (#)
    June 27th, 2016

    I work for a “Trivia Pimp”, who has a few folks doing trivia for him. The emcees (myself and the others who work for him)play four rounds of ten questions each, then have 3 specialty questions at the end. I host this at two venues, and the venues donate “coupons” that are good to spend at the venue only. Each team receives a $5 coupon for winning a round (a team can only win one coupon per night), along with a possibility of winning the “grand Prize” coupon at the end of the evening. The rounds can have themes or they can be general trivia. The players do not care, as long as they are playing, drinking and having a good time.
    In order to be successful at it you have to develop a rapport with the crowd, and that is what keeps them coming back. They come to be entertained, so I will crack jokes or make witty observations, ala Seinfeld.
    Questions can range from the first element listed on the Periodic Table of the Elements, to the name of Jon Arbuckles cat.
    I also remind them to tip the bartenders before the night is over. In case of a tie for either the round or the night, I will ask the crowd if they trust the bartender to select a winner, (always YES), fold up a teams answer sheet, hand the teams to the bartender, and have her pull a winner out of a hat.
    A great time is had by all, including me!

  • Nigel Richards (#)
    December 1st, 2016

    Very good advice here. Some more tips by a very experienced quizmaster here: http://www.pubquizinfo.org

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    February 15th, 2017

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