Q&A with Hannibal Brooks, Sr. Insight Manager, Olson Zaltman

Editor’s note: Nancy Cox is the founder of Research Story Consulting and former CPG corporate researcher. Her work and play include words, sketchpads, cooking (not baking) and the occasional sock puppet.

Passions, hobbies, healthy distractions and even guilty pleasures – discover how the research community plays and how that plays out in their work life. In the Venn diagram of work and play, what happens when work and play overlap? Research colleagues share their work and play stories in this interview series by Nancy Cox. 

Hello to Hannibal Brooks, senior insight manager, Olson Zaltman

What is the “play” in your life?

Game shows, especially those that are in the realm of mind games and trivia, are the play that’s had the biggest impact in my life. From family game nights to competing on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “The $100,000 Pyramid,” play has shaped who I am.

My gaming play started very young; playing Brain Quest flash cards for hours during family road trips was a staple. Every Christmas, our extended family would gather from Georgia, Florida and Texas and then everyone joined in games. Our most hotly contested event was a high-stakes game of holiday-themed charades with over 60 people divided into two teams. My twin brother Malcolm and I got so good at charades, the family created a rule that we had to be on opposing teams.

One of my fondest memories through elementary and middle school were test days. When our class did really well, the teacher would reward us by turning on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” We even had our school version of “Millionaire.” Although I was never chosen for that, it built up the myth surrounding “Millionaire” in my mind. The classic hero myth of the Everyman overcoming challenges, winning the goal and returning a changed person for the experience.

Flash forward to shortly after college graduation. I was recovering from being a bone marrow donor. The recovery really was pretty easy, giving me couch time to watch “Millionaire.” My brother Malcolm suggested this was my time to submit a fun audition tape, which he was excited to put together. The “Millionaire” casting crew called me the day after they received the tape, and I was the first – but not the only – Brooks twin to compete.

After that first experience, we auditioned for “The $100,000 Pyramid.” Family charades paid off because there’s a lot you cannot say. Like charades, “Pyramid” demands associative thinking. Associations are how you get someone to think quickly. For example, if I want someone to say “moon” I wouldn’t describe everything that’s true about the moon, but I would say “not the sun but the ....”  Opposites are a very fast association. Another fast association is fill-in-the-blank such as “howling at the (blank).” Or using a slogan like “the snack that smiles back.” It’s faster than describing a Goldfish cracker. 

How has your play influenced your research work?

Playing games can involve a lot of work but doing work can involve a lot of play. Approaching work with the same fun, flexible mentality brings more joy to brainstorms, project design or even planning how you’re going to present. An example is building that signature game-show tension by saving the big question’s answer until the end of the presentation.

Also, when you watch a game show, listen to the questions that the hosts use: “Tell me what you’re thinking right now.” “What’s in your head?” They are great probes not only for research but also in daily life. If you invite people to share their thinking, they will. To explore not only what they’re thinking but perhaps even more importantly reveal how they’re thinking.

I’ve also learned two good play approaches to research from game show staff – the pivot and the pass. The pivot is discovering how someone else thinks. Let’s say I’m trying to elicit the answer “knight” in a game like “Pyramid.”  To start, I describe a knight with my first association such as “it’s a chess piece, it’s a horse that can jump.” I see that’s not working. I pivot to “wears armor, fights dragons” or perhaps a completely different type of association “not day but ...” 

While we can’t see into someone else’s mind, we can see when someone has exhausted their thoughts despite all our clever pivots, and that it is time to move on. Use the pass. When we return, they will have refreshed thoughts. While researchers do this in interviews or focus groups, should we also offer this option in surveys? Let people answer, “I’m not sure about this one yet,” allow them to pass  and then bring the question back later. Besides refreshed thinking, this also allows for that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon when someone just doesn’t have the right words the first time.

What would you tell readers who want to know more about your area of play?

Let me bust a myth: you don’t have to know everything to be successful on a game show. I have a poor to mediocre memory. Behind the scenes on these shows, the encouraging and supportive staff emphasize that it’s not about being the smartest. It’s about being flexible with your thinking.

My best tip is almost every game show has an “at-home” version. Play the board game or download the app! You will quickly learn what kind of player you are — then as far as casting goes, there’s open casting for almost every game show. Playing the game makes you good at the game. Being cast is all about who you are as a person. Almost like a job interview or finding a great research respondent. Do you have a good story to tell? Can you think out loud so we get a peek into your thought process? Are you entertaining? Artificial intelligence can get all the answers right but it wouldn’t make for a very interesting show because we watch for the human story.

Remember that comment I made about saving the big question and answer for the end? Yes, you can win money on game shows. I won $5,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and my brother later won $30,000. When we played together on “Pyramid,” we won $50,000 each, plus a Cancun vacation. 

Fun fact: We donated $10,000 of our “Pyramid” winnings to five charities including the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry – a full-circle trip around the board!