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Moderating a focus group can be tricky, with the moderator having to play numerous roles while keeping many balls in the air. In this article, we’ll explore what a moderator does during the focus group, plus four moderator best practices.

During the focus group, a moderator has a set of goals to accomplish with the participants.  Typically, the aim is get specific feedback about key questions or presentation elements, such as facts, photographs, or videos. Patience is key to navigate the obstacles that develop quickly and often during a session, such as time limitations or extra talkative participants. A moderator must keep their eyes on the prize and, if a barrier arises, be ready to swiftly change course with the group.

Four questions to ask yourself when moderating a focus group.

1.     What are the group dynamics?

Immediately greet each participant and assess group dynamics. Who is a leader? Who is a follower? Who will you need to prod to speak? These dynamics may shift throughout the presentation. For example, a nurse participant may not volunteer or answer questions about a scientific product, but will act as leader when discussing medical devices. Moderation experience significantly helps when reading the group dynamic and shifting the questions or style accordingly

2.      Is the environment open and inviting?

Keep the tone of the focus group open and friendly by creating a space where participants feel welcome to engage. When moderating, remain receptive to responses from all participants. A useful tactic is to call participants by name and ask each individual a question during the discussion. It is beneficial to remind the group that their opinions, thoughts, and questions are needed and valuable. Alternatively, you must intervene, dissuade, and sometimes stop aggressive or rude overtures from participants. If a participant bullies or attacks another participant, immediate action must be taken. Such behavior, no matter how slight, can alter the tone and inhibit honest feedback from remaining participants. If necessary, pull the offender to the side during a break and ask them to leave. Explain that their comments are negatively impacting others. Pay them for their time and ask them not to return to the group.

3.     Are you keeping it simple?

Use simple questions to start and facilitate the discussions. Depending on the style of the session, you may be working off a factual presentation or with a set of discussion questions.

Factual presentations: After a factual presentation, participants typically have something to share or have an immediate question. As moderator, you must harvest these immediate reactions. Asking simple questions like “What happened?” or “What are your thoughts?” can get the ball rolling. These questions are also great to transition into detailed or more complex questions, as your mindset should be to get feedback from everyone.

Discussion: If starting with a discussion, ask a quick question everyone can answer, as participants might be hesitant to jump right into detailed questions. Straightforward questions lower hesitancy and set an inviting tone. From there, you can build on questions to achieve the focus group goals.

A successful moderator can choose questions on the fly to follow the feedback, similar to creating a roadmap of questions. Additionally, having a variety of questions helps to quickly engage participants from diverse backgrounds. The goal is to start conversations in a way that gets the group involved and then stand back and watch.

4.     Can you remain neutral?

At all times you must remain neutral, both in language and questions. Remove any identifying language, such as plaintiff or defendant, that could instantly assign labels to a focus group. As mentioned above, simple questions can start discussions, but they also keep a moderator neutral. Biased or argumentative questions can evoke biased feedback, with people just saying what they think the moderator wants to hear.

Strive to keep your own comments and responses neutral. Avoid telling participants “That is a good point,” or “I agree with you.” These phrases can indicate your personal opinion and bias. An alternative is to thank the participant for sharing and ask for others to comment. Along the same lines, keep your tone and body language neutral. A valuable moderator can do the job without attempting to influence the focus group participants.

Moderating a focus group is tough but highly rewarding. As an experienced focus group moderator, I enjoy working with groups of individuals and learning about what they have to say or think.

Do you have questions about moderating a focus group? Set up a focus group strategy call with me and we can discuss in detail.