A great focus group moderator has an abundance of interpersonal and communication skills that few people have and many people wish they had. If you’re building your learning plan for the year with hopes of becoming a great moderator yourself, here are just some of the attributes you can aspire to.
1) Moderators are one with the discussion guide.
Great moderators take the time to fully prepare for every session. They know the guide inside and out and can easily bounce from one section to another without distracting the group with frequent note checks. They know that the order of topics in the guide isn’t carved in stone but rather, a list of ideas that needs to be explored in a way that makes sense for each unique set of research participants.
2) Moderators are naturally friendly.
Great moderators are comfortable in a room with strangers from every walk of life. Whether the research participants are rich or poor, formal or informal, boisterous or shy, moderators enjoy meeting everyone. They have learned how to make everyone feel welcome and their contributions important.
3) Moderators prevent time-hogs.
Some people could talk for 30 minutes in a 90 minute focus group about the most insignificant things – did you know that the little piece of plastic on the end of every shoelace is called an aglet? It keeps your shoelace from unraveling and it makes it easier to thread it through the holes in your shoe. They’re usually clear plastic but sometimes they’re a solid colour the same as the shoelace. Yawn. Great moderators can interrupt talkers in a way that doesn’t make them feel snubbed or less important. Praise the participant for their ability to share their opinions and let them know you want to help other people share their opinions too.
4) Moderators involve quiet people.
Just because someone isn’t talking doesn’t mean they having nothing important to share. A great moderator knows how to read the body language and facial cues of quiet people to identify when an idea may have been sparked. People who find it difficult to interject in a conversation will finally get to speak during a heated discussion.
5) Moderators don’t lead answers.
It’s an impressive skill to be able to ask a question that has almost no nouns but still incites a meaningful answer from a participant. Great moderators have a treasure trove of neutral, probing questions and carefully honed, verbal intonation that encourages and opens the door for participants to expand their ideas. Combined with questioning intonation, trying these phrases:
- “and the reason for this is…..”
- “and the way it works is….”
- “so it could be something that…”
- “and this could be because…”
- “and this makes you feel…”
6) Moderators can create something out of nothing.
If you have teens, you know how frustrating it is to constantly get ‘I don’t know’ answers. Fortunately, great moderators have a much desired skill of being able to turn “I don’t know” into a substantive answer – without leading the answer. Giving people a chance to think for a moment, and offering encouraging but generic probes can make all the difference. For instance:
- “are there things happening or…”
- “is it something you think about or…”
- “what do you think might be happening…”
- “are there good things or bad things or…”
7) Moderators can do a 180 without you realizing it.
In the excitement of sharing personal stories with someone who genuinely wants to hear every detail, participants can easily follow multiple tangents taking them from artificial flavours in bread to Canada’s stunning victory against the Soviet Union in a 1972 Summit Series hockey game (6-5 at the Luzhniki Ice Palace). Great moderators know how to transition right back to the topic without making people feel like they’ve wasted their time or shared things that were not important.
8) Moderators admit ignorance.
Moderators aren’t expected to know the tiniest, intricate details about bread, hockey, tires, aglets, and every other thing they are researching. They are comfortable saying ‘I don’t know’ when a participant has different knowledge than they do. And, they can say ‘I don’t know’ in a way that doesn’t make the participant feel like they’ve made a mistake or that they’re not believed. Besides, a moderator’s subject matter expertise is communication, not aglets.
9) Moderators are human.
Moderators early in their career may find it hard to both cover the material effectively and be themselves for 90 minutes straight. However, over time, great moderators learn how to inject their own personality into sessions. This will greatly help participants to also loosen up, feel more comfortable, and share more insightful opinions.
Now that we’ve gone through some attributes of great moderators, enjoy this parody of a focus group, one that’s gone terribly wrong!