4 Tips for Qualitative Moderators

As a market research professional and qualitative research expert, I’ve moderated over 200 focus groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnographies for a wide variety of clients. I’ve talked to all kinds of people, from transgender sex workers to C-Suite executives. Becoming a good moderator is critical to generating the types of qualitative insights your clients need to be successful in today’s market. While practice is the best way to improve your craft, these 5 tips will help set you on your way to becoming your client’s go-to moderator:

1. Establish a rapport

The first 10 minutes of a group of interview are critical to establishing trust. You want your respondents to feel like they can be open and honest with you, which is why establishing a rapport up front is so important. The standard introductions we usually do at the start of a focus group or interview are not just formalities–this time is an opportunity to establish rapport and show your subjects that they can trust you.

After going through the ground rules/background of the group or interview, let your respondents introduce themselves and be sure to include a “fun” question like ‘What are your favorite hobbies?” or ‘What are you looking forward to this Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer’?

Once your respondents introduce themselves, make a comment about something they said or ask a question to show you are interested and engaged. For example, if a respondent says one of their hobbies is cooking, ask them what their favorite dish to cook is. In your own introduction share something personal about yourself, whether it’s the vacation you’re about to take with your family or what you’re cooking for dinner that night.

2. Don’t judge

In regular conversation, it’s so natural to use “judgment” language when someone says something to us, whether it’s “I agree,” or “Great,” or some other phrase that places a value judgment on what the other person said. But this type of language can inadvertently lead respondents and make them think about what the “right” answer is to your question.

Moderators should actively avoid judging what the respondents say and reply either with a head nod, or a neutral phrase like “OK” or “Got it.” The respondent should have absolutely no idea whether you the moderator agrees or disagrees with what they just said. You want to acknowledge that your respondent just said something, but you must stay neutral in your response.

3. Work the room

One of the most common rookie mistakes new moderators make is allowing a few people to dominate the conversation in a focus group. Everyone in the room should have equal air time, but it’s up to the moderator to ensure that happens.

When stating the ground rules up front, you might want to acknowledge that some people are “talkers” and that others are quiet, so for that reason you might call on some of the quieter folks and sometimes have to interrupt the talkers so you can hear from someone else in the group. Stating these rules up front and letting the group know what to expect is key to a smooth, productive discussion.

4. Check with the backroom

Leave the room 1-2 times to check in with your clients in the backroom and see if there are any additional questions or follow-ups they want asked. A good time to do this is when your respondents are preoccupied with an activity or handout. I try to pop in to the backroom once in the middle of the group and once at the end. You could run a perfectly good focus group but fail in the eyes of your client if you didn’t ask their one key question. Taking the 1-2 minutes to check in with your client is a good strategy to making sure your project is a success.

Now it’s time to start moderating! Check out some of the qualitative research I’ve done here and let me know how your research goes!

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