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Discussion Groups

Talk It Out: Successful Focus Group Discussion Tips

Martin Shull

A lot of thoughtful work and planning goes into ensuring a focus group discussion generates the type of deep insights a client seeks. Here are a few tips from our experts on how to successfully moderate one.

Focus groups generate deep insights by bringing together a small group of people (usually about eight to ten) to discuss a topic. Focus groups are a qualitative research tool, meaning they’re a great option when organizations want to explore a topic in more depth than a quantitative tool, like a survey, can provide. If a business, candidate, or nonprofit needs to learn the “why” behind what their target audience thinks or how they feel, focus groups can be a good choice.

But successful focus groups require thorough planning and careful execution. It’s our job as moderators to make the conversation look natural, but there’s nothing natural about a two-hour conversation on a single topic between a group of eight strangers. Here are a few focus group discussion tips that Meeting Street’s seasoned moderators have learned to generate more thoughtful discussions.

Prioritize Questions

Most of the work of a successful focus group is completed before the meeting starts. The first part is defining your research objective – what do you want answered from this focus group? From there, we develop a list of questions that will deliver the best insights on the topic. There are usually dozens of questions that could lead to interesting discussions; we narrow it down to a small selection that can get our clients the answers they need in the given time we have with the participants.

Master the Moderator Guide

Once the questions are set, it’s time to refine the moderator guide. We determine the preliminary order of the questions that will create the most natural flow. Then we note all of the times that we should spend on each section of questions. It’s important to have a good understanding of how long it will take for participants to answer those questions because it will help us make decisions about when to pull more information from the group and when to move on.

Before the groups, we take time to learn the moderator guide like the back of our hand. Even though we take the moderator guide into the focus group, this memorization helps us make decisions on the fly about when to reorder questions to keep the conversation flowing.

Set Expectations

The most important time in a focus group is the hours we spend preparing. The second most important time is the first five minutes. This is when we establish the basics and set focus group members up to be good participants. 

This is the best time to answer common questions. We typically remind participants that the focus group is being recorded, how long it will be, and where the bathrooms are. We also set the expectation that part of the goal of a focus group is to get the opinions of everyone in the group. With that aim in mind, we’ve been known to bluntly tell participants that we might call on them and ask their opinion if they haven’t spoken up in a while, or we might cut their response a little short to give other people a chance to speak. We always emphasize that, if this happens, it isn’t personal; it’s just a way to ensure the focus group is effective.

Get Comfortable with Silence

After we ask a question that requires some reflection, there will often be a few moments of silence. It’s natural to want to fill that silence. Inexperienced moderators may try to ask the question again, or ask the same question in a different way. This is counterproductive, because it doesn’t give participants the time they need to think carefully about their answer. It also signals that silence is uncomfortable and to be avoided, which can lead to faster, less considered answers from the focus group.

Some moderators, in response to this silence, will move on to a different question or fill the silence with rambling. This is worse. By moving on too quickly, they are missing out on valuable insights simply because they aren’t giving people enough time to think through their answers.

We have a rule of thumb to wait at least 10 seconds after asking a question before we repeat the question or rephrase it. This can feel like a long time, but imagine if someone asked you to come up with your opinion on a complex topic in less than 10 seconds — it can be stressful. We make sure to give our participants the time they need to answer thoughtfully.

Get Everyone Talking

For a successful focus group, it’s vital that the moderator gets everyone in the group to speak rather than letting one or two particularly passionate or talkative people dominate the conversation. And there is always at least one person in every group who, if given the chance, would take up most of the time. Conversely, there are participants  who are more inclined to let others speak. Being a good moderator means finding polite ways to tell people to stop talking, and finding warm, accommodating ways to tell others to start. 

Every moderator will find a few favorite phrases that will help them navigate this situation, but here are a few of our favorites:

  • “We could run a whole focus group on just that topic. But we have a lot to cover, so we’re going to move on to the next question.”
  • “We’ve heard a lot from the right side of the room, let’s hear from someone on the left side of the room.”
  • “I don’t believe we’ve heard from David yet. How do you feel about this topic?”

Be Neutral

Another of our favorite focus group discussion tips is to stay neutral so participants will feel comfortable sharing. If participants can tell the moderator is biased, those who feel or think differently about the focus group topic may be less likely to give their true and complete opinion. 

This means cultivating a good poker face, because participants will say things that we don’t agree with, that don’t make sense, and that are incorrect. We can’t let our facial expressions give away emotions like surprise, disagreement, or confusion.

In general, this also means we don’t correct participants, even when they’re wrong. It’s extremely valuable to understand what people misunderstand or get wrong about a cause, a brand, a politician, or an issue. This can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that focus groups are about gathering opinions, and the participant is the expert on their own opinion.

If you would like to talk more about focus groups or other research tools that can help you answer your most pressing questions, we can help. Get in touch or subscribe to our newsletter.

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