Focus Group Tips – Get Them Talking, Keep Them Talking

March 17th, 2017 by Kathy Costello

Every focus group moderator has their own personal style. I’ve come to rely on four basic strategies that can work for anyone, regardless of your approach to moderating. These tips were first introduced during formal moderator training many years ago. They’ve evolved over time and through trial and error. Maybe there is something here you haven’t thought about lately.


1. No matter what, don’t skip introductions.

We all acknowledge the importance of building rapport and this is where it starts. This is your chance to have a verbal handshake with each person as an individual. Take the time to show you’re genuinely interested by responding to what they say in some way or by simply thanking them. Introductions allow people to find their voice – this is especially important for the quiet ones in the group. When time is tight, clients may view the 10 minutes dedicated to introductions as an item that can be skipped. Don’t do it. Time spent building rapport now will pay dividends later on in the discussion.

2. Be guided by the funnel.

When designing your discussion guide, start with easy to answer questions. Don’t dive right in with questions about the most important issues. I like the funnel metaphor. General, easy to answer, low anxiety questions that require only top-of-mind responses will help to warm up the group. Then as one topic leads to the next and you gradually transition to more focused, in-depth and difficult or sensitive topics, you’ve set the stage for people to provide responses that require a deeper level of thinking.

3. Try the silent treatment.

Silence can make people uncomfortable in any circumstance, and this is especially true in the context of a group discussion. You can use it to your advantage if you feel there is more to be said, or if you haven’t heard from as many people as you like. Sometimes I’ll ask, ‘Are there any other comments before we move on?’ Then wait…One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand. If there are people with lingering thoughts, they’re often happy to fill the silence.

4. Stimulate the discussion with an intervention.

In the context of a focus group, the term intervention describes activities that are intended to re-energize the conversation or stimulate responses. Things like using the flipchart, playing an ad, reading concept statements and incorporating projective techniques are all common. I prefer to save these types of activities for later in the discussion when attention starts to wane or the mid-afternoon or evening slump sets in. Try setting up the flipchart on the opposite side of the room from where you’ll be sitting to give the group a change of scenery. Or simply stand up and walk to the other side of the room. Any of these methods give people a reason to move around or shift in their chairs, and can alleviate physical lethargy. Projective techniques jump-start the discussion in a different way. They can elicit new and insightful responses as they ask participants to think about things from a different perspective or point of view.


Of course, these aren’t the only techniques that moderators use to ensure success. The four listed here just happen to be my personal go-to strategies that have proven to work time and time again.