Hints and Tips: Moderating your first group

28 Mar 2019 | Research & Business Knowledge

For many of us, moderation is something that we now take in our stride, but memories of how we felt the first time we walked into that group room remain strong.  Here are some hints and tips from the ICG’s collective mind, aimed at less experienced researchers (or simply others who want a refresh) as to how to handle first night nerves…

Before the group

  • Prepare a cribsheet of 8-10 prompts e.g. tell me a bit more about this, why do you think that is, can you expand on this, does anyone else feel the same way? etc.  If your mind goes blank you  can deploy any of these and let the group carry you while you regain your composure
  • Check your recording equipment well in advance, make sure you know how to work it and everything is charged – because your brain can go offline in a moment of panic
  • Eat a proper meal a little while beforehand, essentially it’s best not to moderate on an empty stomach as you need the energy
  • If the group is in a facility then take the time to get to know the host / hostess and any other venue staff on hand.  As everywhere else, politeness and time spent with someone else will pay dividends.  If the group is in a hostess private home, and often that can be the recruiter’s own home, then redouble those efforts.  Get to know and get “onside” the person who will be meeting and greeting your respondents first.  The best hosts / hostesses break the ice among a group and set people at their ease before they are even in the group
  • Take a small digital clock with you to put on the table in front of you in case the room does not have a clock in a sensible place – it is amazing how badly placed many are and when in home, they are often absent altogether
  • Mark up the guide not just with the amount of time per topic but also the actual target time to start the next topic
  • Make sure the flip chart pens work before the group, and prep headers/ welcomes etc in advance, and make sure you have enough paper
  • Avoid putting the clients name on the top of each page of the guide – or indeed anywhere obvious on the guide, especially if the client is not to be disclosed (amazing how people can read upside down… but just good to avoid that 101 error)
  • Respondents and clients can’t see how you feel inside, so it doesn’t matter if you’re very nervous, it is not necessarily visible
  • If conducting groups or depths other than in a facility make sure you have two recorders (one as back up), and fresh batteries, and remember to turn them on properly at the beginning of the session (as well as the video recorder).

During the group

  • Turn guide into a one pager with just the headings and times
  • Time spent on warm up and setting ground rules will pay dividends later – especially letting people know what’s coming and emphasising the worth of passing or half-considered thoughts
  • You are in charge of the conversation and may need to move people on to get through your agenda (even if what they are saying is fascinating)
  • Create an environment where it’s safe to disagree – ‘it as important to understand when people don’t have the same view and when they do so please do speak up’
  • When reminding about the audio recording at the beginning of the group, say “it’s very important that only one person talks at once, so when I listen back to the recording I can hear you all clearly”
  • Give respondents permission to be critical – state upfront that you haven’t been personally involved in any ideas we are looking at so you want their open and frank responses to them.  If there is something that isn’t working we need to know that before they invest loads of money into it, and this is where their constructive criticism and suggestions to improve are invaluable
  • Don’t be afraid to use the power you have as moderator.  Both in the room (encouraging or dis-encouraging people from speaking) and in the backroom – don’t be afraid to pull rank and contradict viewers’ perceptions of the conversation (it’s a service industry which has a culture of compliance, but you’re the expert)
  • You are not responsible for whether participants are positive or negative (so resist any pressure you feel to nudge them towards compliance or being positive, even if clients clearly want that to happen)
  • The initial self intro (or intro of other person in pair) is vital to build confidence – ensure it’s more than just one sentence so they hear themselves speak and are listened to uninterrupted
  • Make sure you create a little map on a separate sheet of paper of who is who plus add in key facts about them as they introduce themselves so it is a handy reference during the discussion – you can involve them directly by name (people always react to their names!).  If you want, you can use table/ tent cards for first names or large badges or stickers for participants to wear so that both you and the participants can see each others names, which immediately makes things more friendly for everyone
  • Repeat aloud what the person has just said – helps keep the group together by demonstrating that everyone’s views are heard and also ensures that it is clear on the recording
  • Use silence – put your question out there and be quiet, look open, happy and calm.  Let them feel the pressure to fill a silence, not you
  • Stand up to use flip charts to record discussion points – it helps participants take ownership of the topics as you become more of a recorder than an interrogator
  • If energy’s flagging, take a devil’s advocate position and argue the toss with a participant more than usual, then look around group inviting interventions. Usually gets some, then you can use those to generate more conversation
  • If it’s stuck, change it – move to other side of room, find excuse to get people out of their seats, do something physical like voting for options by allocating stickers, doing collage etc.
  • If worst comes to worst, play the “Look, I have to write a report on what you think about this – and at the moment I’m not sure what you *really* think.  Help me out here, are we just barking up the wrong tree with this idea / brand communication etc?  Where are we going wrong?”
  • At the end of every section, summarise the overall view emerging from the group – this not only double checks your understanding, makes sure it is clear on the recording and also provides opportunity for misunderstandings, nuances or alternative views to be aired
  • Have a plan for how you will get participants back on track if they start a whole new conversation that has nothing to do with your objectives!  And have the confidence to implement it!
  • Have a really firm steer of the conversation and be willing to push back quite hard – but with a smile on your face
  • Smile sweetly and say how interesting it sounds and you would love to hear more if we had time, but we do have a lot to get through if we want to get out of there on time
  • Shut down the over chatty one with body language – can work wonders if they don’t pick up on more subtle hints.  e.g. turning to face another quieter participant to ask them their opinion and saying things like “I need be sure I have everyone’s views”.  In extremis, I have stood behind a respondent and put my hands on their shoulders – it is really difficult for someone to speak to you when you are behind them, and the hands are a (not so subtle) ‘pipe down’ message
  • Have a plan for how you will get quieter people to join in.  Quieter people often give things more critical thought and can make great contributions, but they sometimes need to be explicitly invited into the conversation
  • Ultimately, if participants are idiots, it’s often out of your control.  Don’t take it personally or feel you can stop someone from derailing it or being difficult, just focus on the others and phase them out
  • If you can use body language rather than words to signal listening and expectation of more from them, do that
  • Incorporate a short self-complete written exercise on an important section – e.g. write down how this ad makes you feel and then ask all one by one to read out what they wrote – this ensures the less confident are heard (also reduces “group effect” and gives you useful aide memoire for writing the group up!)
  • If there is any stimulus materials to show, label it so it’s totally clear what people are talking about later (and also make sure you say during the discussion if they start talking about ‘this one’ and ‘that one’ – confirm what they are talking about for the tape.  Label stimulus on the back as well as on the front, and if you have to read it out, also stick a small copy of the wording on the back – this means you don’t have to turn it around to read it (and respondents can follow you by looking at the stimulus), and has the added advantage that viewers can also see what you are holding up

After the group

  • Take a photo of flip charts/ exercises etc. at the end, especially any with post-its on in case anything gets lost or falls off later!
  • You may be very tired afterwards, so not try to do too many sessions/ drive too far afterwards.  As one ICG member said ‘I can vividly remember how tiring it used to be for those first few groups, as your brain is having to work so hard- almost like when you first learn to drive!’
  • After the group, turn the tape back on and record your initial thoughts/ impressions (against the client objectives) – this only takes 5 mins, and can be transcribed or analysed as normal – but it is useful to have that ‘one person brain dump’ straight after the session
  • Double check the room before you leave to make sure you have collected all of the project materials – it is amazing how easy it is to leave behind a key flipchart or piece of stimulus that has ended up under a chair somewhere…

You will develop your own style of moderation over time (e.g. tough but fair vs warm and fun or whatever) – so find out what feels true to your personality and values, rather than trying to emulate your colleagues – learn what you can from them, nick their techniques and approaches but make them your own.