This week, as my interview with TV quiz show question writer Michael Ward concludes, I ask Michael about common contestant mistakes, his time in front of the camera, and how potential contestants can best put themselves in the shoes of a TV quiz show writer, as well as –
Oh – but I’m spoiling what’s up ahead.
I’ll stop now, and just let you read on, shall I?
Yes. Probably a good idea.
SH: What do you like about writing quiz questions?
MW: It’s a job that can be squeezed in anywhere – something you can do outside of normal working hours if you’re employed on something else for example. You use a different part of your brain. I enjoy reading non-fiction, so digging around in books or on-line for stuff to form the basis of a question is merely an extension of that interest. Sometimes questions with a multiple choice option for the answer can offer the opportunity for a joke, which is always fun.
SH: From your perspective as a question writer, what common mistakes do you see contestants making when answering quiz questions on TV?
MW: Well, anticipation is a key – so almost subconsciously knowing the typical structure of a question can help in that regard. Of course, you can be too anticipatory. It’s a balance. Obviously you need to listen carefully and stay focussed.
SH: What do you not like about writing quiz questions?
MW: Writing questions can be a grind. When it’s prescriptive – and often it can be when producers are seeking the right balance of topics for their show – you can feel that your brain has been milked dry. For example, on a recent job I felt like I’d written every single ‘architecture’ question I possibly could, and all that remained was the ultra-obscure. I couldn’t face ‘architecture’ again. But you have to soldier on; there’s always another question you can write – you just have to find a fresh angle.
SH: You’ve also been involved on the other side of the quiz show camera, appearing as a contestant on Millionaire Hot Seat (obviously, this was well before you worked on the show). How was that experience? Did your experience as a question writer give you an edge?
MW: No no, I was on Hot Seat as a contestant while I was writing on the show. In fact, I got to answer my own questions, which was fun. They were so easy!
Of course, I’m joking.
On Hot Seat, you’re essentially challenging yourself, as opposed to Temptation or Million Dollar Minute where you’re in direct competition with other players. So being on Hot Seat – my background in writing questions wasn’t particularly relevant, except that I guess I’d exposed myself to a broad range of knowledge in my research.
SH: As someone who’s ‘been there and done that’, what tips, hints or advice would you have for anyone wanting to be a contestant on Millionaire Hot Seat?
MW: In terms of actually applying for the show: you do the on-line quiz as the first step, then you go to an audition where you do another written quiz of 40 or so questions. If you make the cut (and many don’t) you fill out a questionnaire about yourself and do a brief chat to camera. The key thing is to make yourself sound as interesting as possible – a fun person. Sure, if you win you might plonk the money on the mortgage, but the producers don’t want to hear that. They want something interesting, like you’re going to shout your friends a week in Vegas or buy a zoo or invest in time travel. Make it up. On camera at the audition, it’s no big deal – just be yourself, smile, and relate something amusing that happened to you. No sob stories required. Then, if you happen to make it onto the show, well, it’s pot-luck really, both in terms of where you finish in the ‘order’ of contestants – thereby having a shot at the $ – as well as whether you’re lucky enough to cop questions that are ‘up your alley’.
SH: Is it helpful for a contestant to try and think like a question writer? And if so, how do you teach yourself to think like a question writer?