Developing our “Sales Pitch” -- Talking Up Quizbowl Confidently
Explaining quizbowl, and its own sensible merits, to the outside world
One of the reasons why we don’t have a lot of respect/support is that we’re not good at explaining what we do, or how this game rewards things of value. At least in my experience, the default reaction of a quizbowl person when quizbowl gets brought up outside the game-community is to blush or cast their eyes downward, and wait for the embarrassing revelation to pass. Other folks might attempt to explain what quizbowl is to an outsider, but be too far inside the “insider” mentality to do so in a way which is comprehensible and makes the game seem exciting. Sometimes this difficulty stems from the internalized (and often over-exaggerated) stereotype that quizbowl people are socially inept, or from the belief that this game is not a Cool Thing to Do and thus not worth evangelizing for. There’s a huge missed opportunity here just waiting to be seized.
And I mean “sales pitch” literally, and not figuratively. In pragmatic terms, our ability to speak about quizbowl as though it’s worthwhile directly affects judgments of whether it’s worth the time and money from administrators at their desks, funding committees, new schools unsure about whether to take the plunge, parents dropping their kid off at school early Saturday morning, freshmen on the fence about whether to play at all, etc. Being proud and articulate about the game we put our time into could very well result in more respect and support from the people who can give it, and in more people joining our ranks. On a more rarefied level, it helps the social psychology of quizbowl internally to have more people in it who are outwardly excited about their participation rather than ashamed. There's no reason not to be proud ambassadors for what we do.
The zeroth step in this process is to be confident. As I’ve said multiple times already in this thread: When talking to each other within the quizbowl community, we all know and see the value of the effort we put in and the organizing work we do -- otherwise none of it would happen and we’d be fine just seeing the game rot away. We’re certain that what we do is immensely rewarding. Is there any reason on earth to let that certainty drop off with people who haven’t seen what we do? I doubt it. What’s more, it seems to me like a lot of the anxiety about talking up quizbowl stems from a fear of negative reaction -- of people saying “You spend all your time on that?
Such fears are not realistic. One interesting thing about social interaction is that the things you talk about sound cooler to other people in direct proportion to how positively and confidently you speak about them. (So in some sense, anxious, eyes-downcast attitudes about one’s own participation in quizbowl are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you act like people will react badly and mumble rather than sharing your sense of excitement, they’ll ...react badly and not share your sense of excitement.) When talking with other people about what interests you, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Even if there’s no way in any of the various tossupable underworlds that they’d want to do it themselves, high skill at a competitive activity reflects well on a person in its own right, and confidence is a huge component of ‘coolness’ by any metric.
Being able to point towards skill at a competitive activity with confidence and poise can make you, and by extension the thing you do, look really impressive, no matter what the thing is.
Speaking from personal experience, I started out more like the blushing person with downcast eyes. But during my senior year of high school, I decided to turn that around -- I wanted to be respected for what I was doing, and that required me to display self-respect as a prerequisite. The ability to just say “quizbowl” with a smile when asked where I was going on an upcoming weekend, or what that suspicious-looking box full of wires was for, or what have you, was crucial in helping me tell that side of my story.
Be comprehensible to total outsiders
So with that aside, even when people DO try to explain the basics of quizbowl, they often fail because they’re not well-rehearsed in making it make sense to others. Frequently, our attempts to describe quizbowl are extremely insular and even off-putting. To speak to this a bit: In the summer of 2013 I edited several of the most basic articles on QBWiki to simplify them and make them more comprehensible to newcomers/outsiders. The very page on ‘good quizbowl itself’, perhaps the most important page on that entire site, had over half of its text devoted to a useless theoretical exposition on “game-oriented versus learning-oriented good quizbowl,” an abstruse -piece of theorizing which probably existed in one person’s head seven years ago, which no one talks about in reality. In other instances, attempts to explain quizbowl can quickly degenerate into attacks on its enemies (“well, it’s NOTHING LIKE Jeopardy, how could you possibly think that!”) or jump straight to unexplained jargon -- words like “pyramidal” or even “tossup”. This insularity cuts deep among the people who play this game, since it is for the most part isolated from outside conversation or attention.
What’s the substance we should use to describe our game to outsiders?
I’ve given one basic attempt already, in this article, to give a beginner-friendly take on “what” quizbowl “is,” so I won’t repeat myself here, but rather give a few tips. In these situations, be it a social gathering or a funding meeting, it’s important to be succinct, and to touch on the most salient features of the game without getting into minutiae about formats and the like. Make sure you say buzzers, make sure you say questions from across the academic spectrum, make sure you mention that “unlike Jeopardy, you can buzz in during the middle of the question, and clues are arranged from harder to easier.” Maybe freestyle a brief tossup off the top of your head to illustrate the concept -- mention that the best teams have to keep learning more about the stuff they’ve already heard of, and keep mastering new subjects, to stay successful. Most people will understand the basic idea, and sort of see why this sort of game gets so many people into an addicting cycle of studying more and more stuff, without delving into too much detail or immediately presenting yourself as part of an embittered conflict against a worse game which you also then have to explain.
It can be useful in describing quizbowl to other people is to make sure that people know the depth and academic nature of the categories that get asked about. Because other forms of more recreational question-and-answer funtimes are often heavy with types of knowledge that we don’t value (ridges-on-a-coin style trivia, pop culture), it can be useful to ensure that the academic knowledge aspect of the game, and the rewarding of in-depth learning, is placed front and center. Pro tip: If you just rattle off the standard subcategories in the standard order -- “Oh, all kinds of academic subjects -- a lot of literature, history, and science, plus some fine arts, religion, mythology, philosophy, social science, geography, and current events, and other stuff sometimes” -- you can get a lot of really impressed reactions (they’ll often think you’re devising the list on the spot).
Sometimes, if I really need to reel in someone’s attention fast, I do say something especially short and snappy which is slightly off-base, such as “It’s like Team Jeopardy on steroids”. (That opening lets me explain thereafter that it’s more heavily academic, has the descending-order-of-difficulty factor, etc. if the other person is interested.)
Explaining why we do this
But there’s another thing we have to explain, beyond the basics of what quizbowl looks like, which we’re also failing to do properly, and that’s to explain, well, what do we get out of it? Or, in other terms, “Why should my kid play this game instead of staying at home?” “What keeps you getting onto buses at 5 AM and staying out all Saturday?”
Of course it’s true that most people in quizbowl do it because it’s “fun.” And that’s all well and good -- but that doesn’t set us apart from the Anime Club or whatever else people do as mere amusement in their spare time. We have a sense internally that full-throated participation in quizbowl has more constructive worth for its participants than mere passive entertainment. And our ability to convey that constructive worth to others will help us increase our success at getting quizbowl the respect it deserves. This is especially important if we’re convincing new schools to play, or trying to solicit big donors, or if star players are in a college interview, etc. etc.
To draw a comparison with another mind competition: I’ve seen debaters advocate for their activity quite effectively by telling outsiders what it can do to help build up well-recognized cognitive and interpersonal skills. [I tried policy debate for the first two years of high school; I decided it really wasn’t for me.] Debaters can (in theory, at least) help competitors towards increased rhetorical flourish, on-their-feet thinking skills, research acumen, a beyond-their-years understanding of ethical theory, and increased famliarity with specific areas of politics/policy for their efforts. (Of course, part of the reason why this is true of debate is that the whole activity revolves around presenting points well to audiences.) Athletics teams do this almost subconsciously; I need not rehash the litany of virtues attributed to playing a traditional sport such as basketball or tennis (leadership!), in part because we’ve heard it stated so many times over. And yet I only rarely see or hear quizbowlers even try to talk up the good effects the game had on them in a similar way, when they very well could.
But they’re there, and I promise you a lot of them can be made to sound very good. Here are some examples of real value that participating in quizbowl adds to participants, ready to use as part of a ‘sales pitch’:
- Encourages and boosts precise memory/recall, a skill which is rapidly fading in today’s smartphone world
- Encourages people to retain their learning well after their classes test them on it
- Gets kids into serious academic pursuits, such as independently reading serious literature or looking at art, in their spare time -- which they otherwise might not have had exposure to or motivation for pursuing
- Gives kids who already have serious academic interests in their spare time another venue for expressing, sharing, and expanding those interests (e.g.: literature questions which make a literary work sound interesting can function as a constant source of new book suggestions)
- Exposes people to a much wider range of academically-relevant material than they could hear about within their high school’s curriculum (reminding even the best students that they don’t yet know it all)
- Beyond fact recognition, helps with recognizing context clues and deducing one’s way to answers when there are multiple possibilities
- Gives intellectually-curious people a chance to meet other like-minded kids at other schools and make new friends
- (for TDs, set editors, team captains who organize trips, etc.) Gives particularly involved participants experience managing large logistical tasks and putting together polished, well-organized events
- (for people who write questions) encourages precise in-depth factual research skills under time pressure, and clear writing ability
- Useful cross-training for other mind competitions which a school might have already, such as Science Olympiad or Certamen
- Promotes the general idea of the well-rounded, well-informed citizen; helps people navigate spaces where academic references are frequent or useful
- Perhaps most importantly: Many rewards similar to athletics for people often unwilling or unable to do athletics seriously (builds teamwork skills, gives people who are often very individually-driven work together towards a common goal, a good safe outlet for competitive impulses, grace under pressure, learning how to handle wins/losses, confidence, humility, etc.) The sustained intensity of a 20 to 30-minute quizbowl match, times 10 on many a weekend, really sets us apart from many other mind competitions such as Model UN on this score.
Staying wary of future technology
More existentially, we need to be prepared to answer the question: Why is this game important if anyone can look up information on the Internet or by tapping their smart phone at any time ? (I do have an answer: the Internet can get you very mediocre information very fast, but real learning takes some degree of internalization and dedication, and it’s that which quizbowl tests even if it’s not apparent on the surface to spectators. Sustained engagement with facts, drawing connections between things, the ability to remember things long after swiping a tab to delete it, the checking of facts with reputable sources beyond the latest rumors from Buzzfeed and wikis, conceptual understanding, etc. This is the same reason why we still have schools, even though it's theoretically possible to just surf the Net for fifteen years and become an informed citizen that way -- that's just not reality for all but the most dedicated [and directed] autodidacts.)
As our technology gets smaller and faster, we need to make sure that we have strong norms against the use of cell phones, Google Glass, etc. in game rooms; that stuff needs to be turned off. If someone has a serious emergency and needs to take a call, they can always leave the game room or call for a time out/score check.
In the event that some huge breakthrough like transcranial magnetic stimulation or brain implants comes about, with the promise of enhancing human memory and recall to the point that it’s completely invalid to test for it in a competitive setting, then we might have an existential crisis on our hands .