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A Conversation with the Writers of America’s Favorite Quiz Show®, JEOPARDY!®

With The Training Arcade® do-it-yourself game builder, creating a JEOPARDY!® game for training and education has never been easier. It can help you motivate and engage your training audience more deeply, so that you can turn more of your employees into superstars. But how do you create categories that people are excited to explore? How can you effectively integrate video and images? And what are the tricks for writing interesting and relatable clues? Are you curious how the experts do it?  On a summer afternoon in August, Richard Lowenthal, Managing Partner of The Game Agency, interviewed three creative executives on the JEOPARDY!® writing and production staff to tap into their collective 75 years of experience on the show:  Billy Wisse – Co-Head Writer & Editorial Producer Michele Loud – Co-Head Writer & Editorial Producer, and Deb Dittmann – Senior Producer.

When you’re ready to create your JEOPARDY! game in The Training Arcade®, you’ll have all the tools needed to create the magic and fun that the show has brought to audiences for over 36 years. Here’s a blog post that goes into much greater detail on the tactical elements of creating your own JEOPARDY! game for training or education.  Enjoy the conversation below.

[Richard] Thank you very much, all of you, Deb, Michele, Billy, for this time just to chat. Just quick introductions to set the table for our readers. I’m Richard, one of the partners at The Game Agency, and I’ve had the great pleasure of working for a couple of years now with the wonderful creative staff at JEOPARDY! Production and the fantastic licensing team at Sony. About a year and a half ago, we launched the only official JEOPARDY! training and education game for trainers, educators used primarily right now for corporate training. We’re also diligently working to bring JEOPARDY! back to the school classroom.

So, I’m going to do something I’m not very good at, which is to be quiet for a second and have everyone, introduce themselves and then we’ll have some fun with the questions. 

[Michele] This is Michele Loud, Co-Head Writer of JEOPARDY!. Billy and I are responsible for game construction, leading the meetings with all of the writers, approving their material. I’ve been with the show for almost 27 years. I started as a researcher.

[Richard] That’s awesome. So, you’re just getting going, Michele. 

[Richard] Deb do you want to go next?

[Deb] Yes, I’m Deb Dittmann. I’m the Senior Producer of JEOPARDY!. I work with all the writers, researchers, and clearance department and work on the audios and videos that go into the show. And any sweeping that needs to be done. Pretty much anything.

[Richard] Nice. It sounds like you have my job. And how is everything going now that you’re back doing your tapings? Everything going okay, I hope?

[Michele] It’s different. It’s the same but it’s different. You either have to be brand new to this so it seems normal or you have to be doing this for 30 years so you can adapt to these things that are happening. The stakes are high and we’re taking it very seriously. 

[Richard] Yeah, I totally understand. Things are tough right now. We are so very pleased and thankful for you taking the time to share with the trainers and educators about your creative process. Hopefully, this time together, however long it is, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 4 hours, however long we’re chatting, hopefully, it’s a bit of a respite. What we hope to gain are your insights, all three of you, in terms of how you would suggest to our audience they think about the JEOPARDY! game. They’re educators and trainers, people that are trying their best to help their employees do their jobs better by learning the material they need to do their job well to get promoted at their jobs, to have more professional satisfaction. 

And so, what we’re looking to elicit from the three of you are pearls of wisdom that you would want to share on how educators can use this amazing intellectual property called JEOPARDY! to emotionally engage their audience of learners. And the audiences are different. You’re entertaining your audience while educating. We really want to do the opposite here. We’re educating while entertaining. So the goals are slightly different.  We’re looking to have you reach into your creativity to say, well, while the audience and intent may be different, the goal is emotionally and intellectually engaging. That’s the same. But here are some thoughts. 

Billy, if you wouldn’t mind sharing a little about yourself and then we’ll get right into the questions. 

[Billy] Sure, I’m Billy Wisse, I’m the Co-Head Writer for JEOPARDY!. I’ve been with the show for 30 years. I’ve been a researcher. I’ve been a writer and now I’m the co-head writer. So, yeah, I’ve certainly thought a lot about the issues of how people relate to the kind of content we provide, and it’s an interesting topic. 

Breaking Down Content and Diving Deeper into a Topic

[Richard] Okay. Fabulous. So for over 36 years, JEOPARDY! has engaged, entertained, and educated audiences around the world on a panoply of topics. And yes, I had to use the word panoply. If you were suddenly cast into the role of writing JEOPARDY! clues on specific topics to educate employees and students, how do you think you’d change your creative mindset and approach?

[Billy] Well, that’s an interesting question because one of the hallmarks of the JEOPARDY! format, one of the things that we rely on, is the variety of topics that we cover. So, if you’re talking about educating, using the format to educate people on a more focused topic, I still think that you would still want to break it down. So, for example, we’ve done Rock ‘n‘ Roll JEOPARDY! and Sports JEOPARDY!. For both focused themes you have to break it down into subtopics as much as you can. It really keeps the glory of the format where people who have all different specialties can shine, and the audience doesn’t get bored, and the players don’t get bored.

[Michele] To dovetail onto what Billy was saying, I don’t think you really have to turn your mindset around in a different way. I think it would be very like when we write the teen tournament, you just think about who your audience is. We do it all the time. Whether it’s the teens or the college, or sports, or rock ’n’ roll. That’s how you adapt.

[Richard] I’m going to tease out that question a little bit further. 

On your show, you have so many interesting topics. But, the people who are playing JEOPARDY! to learn about their very specific job, might have to deal with content that is dry and not as interesting as someone’s passion for music or art. Using JEOPARDY!! to learn about new tax laws, might be like, “Oh my goodness gracious, I need to know these tax laws.” But how do you do it in a fun and engaging experience like JEOPARDY!? So, we’ll see whether this is the right question to tease out that notion or not. Deb, you haven’t had a chance to chime in for this first question. Any thoughts from your end?

[Deb] Well, pretty much as Billy and Michele mentioned. It’s really about taking a specific topic and extrapolating it into a bunch of different categories and taking a deeper dive into the topic. I think you can always approach information in a more entertaining way, which is what we try to do with facts. Make them interesting or write them with a little wink or a nod just to make them a little more entertaining and fun, but still get the point across. 

[Richard] To that point, are you suggesting trying to bring a sense of humor to even a serious topic?

[Deb] Yeah, I mean I always like a sense of humor. Even a serious topic, you can still have an edge where it’s not completely as serious. You can still get a point across with maybe using an interesting example. Without knowing the specific information, you can still lend that entertainment and value from the game. I think it makes people remember it more. 

[Richard] Yeah, no, I absolutely agree.

[Billy] One thing we have done sometimes is put characters into our clues. We don’t do that so much on the show now because we feel it might sometimes distract the audience. But, if you have a more motivated set of participants, like Joe the Tax Accountant, use clues about Joe so your audience can help picture a person. That sometimes helps make things more relatable.

Videos, Images, and Crafting the Perfect Clue

[Richard] Nice. Yeah, I like that word “relatable.” It makes the content more relatable. I think JEOPARDY! does that. It humanizes what we’re trying to educate on. So I think that’s great.

This next question, I think is going to be interesting to see how Michele, Deb, and Billy interact in your roles right now. Because, Deb, you said earlier that you have a lot to do with finding images and videos that work with the clues. So, that’s actually a great segue to this next question. 

The JEOPARDY! TV show is a thirty-minute intellectual island of entertainment. JEOPARDY!® in The Training Arcade® is a complementary part of an overall educational campaign that likely consists of reading materials, videos, and perhaps some in-person or virtual lectures.  Knowing that the JEOPARDY! clues can be in the form of video, images, audio, or text, how would you recommend instructors use JEOPARDY! as a part of a whole campaign and weave the learning content into the game clues?

That was a mouth full. Who wants to start and give thoughts on how to weave in, having JEOPARDY! be part of an overall campaign? 

[Deb] I’m going to let Michele start with that one because the visuals actually start with the clues. 

[Michele] Hey, thanks, Deb. You know, we do struggle with this. Because there are times when we say, well, we talk about pinning clues so there is only one right response. So, we say, “Well, it will be pinned by the video, but does anyone really know what Friedrich von Steuben looks like?” Is that really helpful? So you want the visual element to actually help tell something. And that’s where very often with art, you’re describing the thing you’re seeing. But it does also help to see the actual painting. And I know that we’ve had a lot of success with our Clue Crew where they can really point out some details in a famous painting that you might not have noticed before, and what that symbolism really means. And you can dig into a little bit more and explain the clue a little bit better by seeing what you’re talking about. 

[Richard] That’s awesome. Thank you. Deb, do you want to add anything?

[Deb] Well, are you talking tutorial videos or . . . ?

[Richard] Yeah, something like that. Well, what tends to happen, in professional training, many times you have to go watch a video first. You watch a 15-minute video on what to do if there’s a chemical spill and then typically, you’re asked five questions after. And that comprises that particular safety training segment. So, how would you recommend complementing that video training? Having people watch that video and then play a JEOPARDY! game? Or would you recommend taking that video and breaking it up into three or five segments and have them become categories? Curious on how you would approach the integration of content into a JEOPARDY! game.

[Deb] Well I think the obvious thing, especially since you said there are five questions, that’s a category. You could take that video and break it up into 5 different sections you want to highlight. Make that clue about that section and show that part in the video and then ask the question after that. Or you could set it up, play that part of the video – which is similar to what we’re doing on the show now. So, depending on how long it is or what the topic is, you could easily do that in a category. And I think you could break it up even more into a board if you have more information in that particular video.

[Richard] I concur. Billy, any thoughts on that?

[Billy] Yeah, I think that would be a good way to do it. Or if you were using it as more of a testing type of situation, you could also show the whole video and then base the category on what they’ve just seen to see how much they retained. I think either one has a lot to recommend. And I think, you know, we never tried on the show having a whole clip that then contestants have to answer five clues about that clip without ever showing it again. So actually, you’re giving us some ideas here that maybe we should try.

[Deb] That sounds crazy, Billy. Just kidding. 

[Michele] Well, I mean, I think for our purposes that would be a long time to be watching one video. Where, if you were in a training session, you could watch a 5 or 10-minute video and see how much you retained by answering the questions. 

[Deb] You’ll also have a better chance to remember when it’s broken up in smaller pieces.

[Billy] I agree, a 10-minute video clip would be impractical for JEOPARDY!.

[laughs]

[Richard] It would be interesting to have an entire category comprised of 10-second videos on the same topic. Let’s go to the next question, and this is getting tactical. So, the audience that will be reading this conversation will be instructors. The people that are using the JEOPARDY! training and education game to create their actual training exercises for their employees. And those instructors have written thousands of their own questions and answers for what are known as knowledge assessments/knowledge checks. So, they’re used to writing a question and having an answer. Well, in JEOPARDY!, you have to flip – you got to invert that thinking and you’re writing answers to which you want responses in the form of questions. And sure, it’s become second nature to all of you to do those mental gymnastics. It’s like learning a language – you don’t actually end up translating things in your head once you become fluent in a second or third language. But for everybody else, it’s not natural. So, what do you suggest? How would you invert the thinking?

[Michele] I will say that I was writing a category yesterday and I had gotten some beautiful thoughts down, and realized I wasn’t actually asking a question. It happens to the best of us. Make no mistake. But you do have to know what you want the response to be. 

[Richard] So, do you start with the response? Where do you start?

[Michele] You sort of need to have both pieces at the same time. You have to do a little bit of reading first and you have to know what the answer is. You can’t just say, well it’s the longest river! You have to know the answer. 

[Billy] I think we’ve all had the experience of starting with a fact that was in our head and discovering that thing you have crafted doesn’t fit the facts. I think that the A&Q thing isn’t that complicated, you just get used to changing your questions. I guess my first recommendation would be that the instructors who are crafting these games should watch JEOPARDY! very regularly. 

[laughs]

[Richard] Wait a minute. Did Billy just actually shamelessly plug your show? I can’t believe it!

[Michele] That was brilliant.

How to Write a Great Clue

[Richard] I know that you don’t necessarily write the clues, but any thoughts around what you would recommend to the instructors out there, based on what you’ve seen Michele and Billy do over the years?

[Deb] I mean, I agree. I think the easiest thing to do is just figure out what you want the response to be. And then go from there with the information that you have, building that clue, and getting up to that response. Because that’s the main thing you want to put into a clue. You want whoever is playing to be able to answer the way you want them to. So, you really do have to start with the response and go from there.

[Richard] Okay. Awesome. What are your thoughts, as a group, about the use of the secondary clue as a hint for the player? How often do you do that? Any suggestions to go about that, coming with a secondary fact for the clue?

[Billy] Well I think you just have to be careful that the hint doesn’t become the actual clue. If you think the contestants would know what state produces the most tin or something, and you think they would know that, you write a clue around it. But, if you wrote this state is where the Grand Canyon is that produces the most tin. Now the clue isn’t about tin anymore. The heart of the clue is about the Grand Canyon. So, I would just say that you don’t want the hint to overwhelm the question. Especially if your goal is really education, you want to make sure that you’re testing the knowledge at the core of the question, not the knowledge that’s in the hint. 

[Richard] I understand. It’s definitely a balancing act. Curious, Michele, your thoughts?

[Michele] I would echo what Billy says. Certain topics can sound very esoteric and then ultimately you’re asking about some opera you never heard of premiered in this capital of France, and you’re like, “Well, who cares?” So, it’s important to make the premise of your clue. And I know it’s different for you guys because you’re working on material that’s more specialized. 

[Richard] Just curious, I know we’re getting to more educational theory here. And Deb, I’m looking forward to your response in a moment. But I wanted to throw out something here that occurred to me. 

So, there’s a fabulous book by Peter Brown called Make It Stick, and he speaks about creating synaptic pathways to help people remember things. It’s that recall that we so want to generate. But it’s interesting to think about whether or not, yes, I need you to know that the state of Arizona is the state in which the most tin is mined. I need you to know that. But if I can actually do that, by also creating a mental image of the Grand Canyon being filled up with tin, and I can plant that image in your brain, we’ve won. So, I think there’s an interesting way in using that hint to construct in someone’s mind that synaptic pathway to the information. So, kind of interesting. 

Deb, any thoughts from your point on hints and how effective they can be or distracting? 

[Deb] I think we put them in there because we want to give them the clue’s context. Because with Michele’s example, just saying something about a place without giving any context doesn’t help the person who’s playing the game. It’s unfair. So, we need to put the clue into context so they can get to the correct response but also connect that information with that response. 

[Michele] And yeah, Richard to your point, you know that makes it a much more interesting clue if you said, this state produces X amount of tin, enough to fill up its Grand Canyon halfway. That is a much more interesting clue than just the state where the Grand Canyon is, produces the most tin. So, that’s part of the magic of writing a JEOPARDY! clue. A good JEOPARDY! clue. 

Text Input or Multiple Choice

[Richard] That’s our goal here. Creating a really good JEOPARDY! clue. Not just a test. We do not want people to use JEOPARDY! just to create a test. That’s not the goal. The goal is to really help them create an art form here. 

Let’s move on to the next question. This might be a little left-field here. You guys write questions that are always fill-in-the-blank. They aren’t multiple choice. Well, for educators, that’s really hard to do. In the JEOPARDY! game for training and education, we allow the educators to have responses that are either multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank. And by the way, it’s okay for you guys to say to me, Richard, you’re asking me a question that is completely non sequitur. What would you recommend for the strategy when creating multiple-choice responses? 

[Billy] A lot of the JEOPARDY! material ends up being converted into forms to be played on the web, so there is a whole skill of adding misleads. I think that’s the term for incorrect responses. I would say if you’re writing it with that in mind, it’s just an extra layer of thinking about the clue. The kind of clue where you would have to think one extra step ahead. Craft the clue where you can come up with convincing misleads. 

[Richard] I appreciate that. Michele? Deb? Any thoughts on that?

[Michele] Yeah, that’s a tough one because it’s not something that we do. Occasionally we will have a category that’s Ringo, Bingo, or Lingo, and the answer is one of those three things, but it’s not the same as what you’re talking about. But you want to give players something that sounds like a plausible answer so that they do have to think about it, as opposed to it being a real softball and so obvious. If you sent three or four answers, like the SAT, and you’re thinking that you can eliminate this one but these two are pretty good. 

[Richard] Yeah. I’m not a fan of softballs. I think the multiple-choice question responses can almost be as hard as fill-in-the-blank, especially if you just provide shades of grey and you’re looking for the best response. Deb, any thoughts on multiple-choice? 

[Deb] I was going to say the same thing that Michele said about having misleads be viable responses. Sometimes when we do them for outside projects, if there are three misleads, two of them will be viable and one will be maybe funny. So, you get some humor in that way. But you need them to be viable.

[Richard] That’s awesome. I think humor can go a long way towards reducing people’s defenses when it comes to learning more, especially as adults. 

[Richard] I read an interview that Alex Trebek gave a week or two ago. Sometimes he’ll go through the clues and say this is too hard, or that’s too easy. What does that feel like? By the way, it’s okay to say you’re not answering that question. You put so much time and effort into those clues, and by the way, I’ve written my fair share of clues, and they’re hard to do. It’s hard to write a great clue. It must be interesting. What does that feel like? You can say pass.

[Michele] Sometimes, you’re very sad that a clue of yours has to come out. But you know, we write a lot of clues. You know another is coming soon and I try to be okay with it. Sometimes you’re like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” Other times, you’re like, “That’s my baby, no!”

[Richard] Just don’t name your clues and you’ll be fine.

[Deb] We’re all pretty used to that. It’s part of the writing business.

[Michele] Yes. I’ve had some of my clues just slashed apart and then sometimes you get tremendous praise. And sometimes a clue no one particularly likes, plays great. Sometimes something you love doesn’t play so great. That’s just how it goes.

[Richard] Over a meal one day when we can all get together, and I would love that, I’d ask what your favorite clue of all time was that you’ve written over the last 26 or 27 years.

[Michele] I do. I can tell you right now.

[Richard] I would love to hear it.

[Michele] It was a final, and I think the category was food or something like that. And it was: In 1929, Mr. Dreyer and Mr. Edy came up with this ice cream flavor that they named for the times ahead. The answer was Rocky Road.

[Richard] Oh! Very nice. Rocky Road. Didn’t know that was the genesis for Rocky Road.

[Michele] Yes, and I got it from eating it. It’s on the label. 

[Richard] That’s awesome. That’s my daughter’s name. That’s great. 

[Deb] You named your daughter Rocky Road?

[Richard] No, just Rocky! 

[Michele] And I know Billy has a favorite question of his. 

[Billy] Yes. My favorite question actually never aired. I still love it and it never aired and never will. It was: Gene Siskel was given a dozen of these by his friend, but he never used them. Answer: What are lighted pens. I just love that question. You just have to think about what is something that you would give someone who sits in a screening room and watches movies all day. 

[Richard] That’s awesome. What a great way to end. What a delightful conversation. Let me just say a huge thanks to everyone! What a pleasure to meet all of you. Billy, Michele, Deb, thank you very much. You guys be well and hopefully, we’ll be able to get together, and it’d be my pleasure to enjoy a meal together. Thank you very much. Let me wish you the best of luck and stay well.

[Everyone] Thank you!

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can use JEOPARDY! for training and education, click here to schedule a 30-minute demo and start your free trial. Or email Jaime McDonald at jaime.mcdonald@thegameagency.com. Click here to play a demo JEOPARDY! game with content from the TV show, written by the JEOPARDY! writers.

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