What Makes a Good Host?
I’ve written before about the benefits of trivia and my affinity for it, which is to be expected from someone who works for Sporcle Live. Years of spending two to three nights a week pub quizzing have given me a deep and abiding affection for a skilled trivia host. Now that I make my living on the other side of the microphone, I have an even keener appreciation for how difficult it is to anchor a great game of trivia.
Hosting trivia is tricky business. You’ve got to balance a lot of different things at once—reading the questions, scoring answers, and policing for phone use—while making sure that you’re providing a fun and lively night out. Over the course of my trivia career, I’ve loyally followed hosts from venue to venue, and I’ve also stopped playing at bars that gave great prizes because the host was no fun. Below are three things that I want out of my host when I’m playing (and, consequently, three things I hope I do well).
Three Keys To Being A Good Trivia Host
1. Read the Room
The single best trivia host I’ve ever seen was in the town where I went to grad school. He was funny, knowledgeable, and as passionate an advocate for trivia as a community-building activity as anyone I’ve ever met. He also had a voice that sounded like he smoked a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes every hour on the hour and was constitutionally incapable of speaking a sentence without swearing at least twice. For a town full of college kids seeking to rid the world of Jägermeister by drinking it all, he was ideal. More than once, though, I saw a family hurriedly pay their check and bolt when they saw him setting up. In a college town, that didn’t sink the business. It’s imperative that a host understand what kind of crowd they’re playing to.
To wit: at one of my regular shows, I have a bunch of PCTL teams that have been playing there for years. Regulars—and especially regulars who win frequently—are much more open to a gentle ribbing about their performance than new teams. When in doubt, I always try to err on the side of caution. It’s important to remember that you’re a trivia host, and a good host always makes their guests comfortable.
2. Keep It Moving! (But Not Too Fast!)
As anyone who has met me will tell you, I have a pretty hammy personality (Well, “hammy” is probably nicer than the word they would use, but I think it’s accurate). When I’m hosting a show, I like to pepper in as many fun facts and jokes as I can. A good trivia host is fun and funny, but you have to be careful not to overdo it. I’ve seen some hosts who treated the show like their own personal open mic night, and treated the questions like an afterthought. Remember: people came to answer some questions. You’re essential to their having a good time, and you need to keep them entertained. But everything you do should be in service of getting the questions asked in a timely fashion.
At the same time, you don’t want things to zip by too fast. People need time to deliberate and discuss. Bar trivia is a social activity, after all, and you don’t want to quash people’s chance to relax by forcing them to answer every question like it’s a speed round. Just like reading the room, a good host can develop a feel for pace that makes the game move along at the perfect rhythm.
3. Know Your Material
This point seems obvious, but I’m amazed by how often it seems like a host has no idea what they’re talking about. Someone recently told me about a (non-Sporcle, I should point out) trivia host who repeatedly mispronounced the word “Tesla” as “Tulsa.” Unless you want to have the game dragged out with endless challenges and disputes, you better know what you’re reading. In the first trivia game I ever hosted, I mispronounced the word “Javan” (I said “Jah-van”) and it still haunts me. Again, you’re the expert, so make sure you sound like it!
So that’s a quick insight into the general qualities that make a good host. In the next few weeks, I’ll look at hosts for specific types of events.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Seth Wilson, a Private Events Manager for Sporcle Live and a Pub Trivia host. He also happens to be a 12-time Jeopardy! champion, so he knows a thing or two about trivia.