Leading focus group interviews

By Jim LaDoux
Leading focus groups, when done well, can provide a wealth of very helpful information for  you and your leaders as you assess your ministry impact, and discern next steps in ministry.  In this article, you'll learn about the the moderator and Recorder roles that often leaders play when leading focus groups.

Moderator Responsibilities

The first few moments in focus group discussion are critical. The moderator must create a thoughtful, permissive atmosphere, provide ground rules, and set the tone of the discussion. A moderator introduces topics to be discussed, typically in the following order:
  •  Welcome participants.
  • Share why they were selected.
  • Provide an overview of the topics to be discussed.
  • A Sample Script for a Moderator
  • State ground rules to ensure constructive dialogue.
  • Introduce question; post question using a card.
  • Introduce final question; thank participants.

“Good evening and welcome to our session. Thank you for taking the time to join us to talk about educational programs in the county. My name is __________ and assisting me is _______. We’ve been members at _______ Church for ____ years. The Council charged us to helping leaders gather information from members about their perceptions of _____________. We want to know what you like, what you don’t like, and how programs might be improved. We are having discussions like this with several groups within our faith/local community.
You were invited because you have participated in ____________, so you’re familiar with what this ___________ does, and you all live in this section of the county. There are no wrong answers but rather differing points of view. Please feel free to share your point of view even if it differs from what others have said. Keep in mind that we’re just as interested in negative comments as positive comments, as long as they’re constructive in nature.
You’ve probably noticed the microphone. We’re recording the session because we don’t want to miss any of your comments incase we can’t write down your comments quickly enough. We use first names only and we don’t indicate names in our reports to ensure people’s confidentiality. The information gathered will merged with information collected at other listening sessions. Our consultant will prepare a final report based on the information that’s shared. Well, let’s begin. We’ve placed name cards on the table in front of you to help us remember each other’s names. Let’s find out some more about each other by going around the table. Tell us your first name and where you live.

Thank you for sharing your perspectives with us today. Your feedback will be very helpful as we explore next steps for our living into our mission and vision. If you’d like to learn more about the collective results . . . please, (indicate where they’d find out).”

  • Use 5 second pauses to allow participants to jump into the conversation.
  • Probe deeper to gain clarity: “Would you explain further?” “Would you give an example?” “I don’t understand.”
  • Listen for and seek to clarify inconsistent comments; probe for understanding.
  • Provide recorder with adequate time to capture comments; remember to record the session.
  • Maintain a neutral posture and response to comments shared by participants.
  • Avoid offering short verbal responses such as “that’s good” or “excellent.”
  • Have strategies for addressing dominant talkers, dealing with ramblers, and  encouraging shy participants.
  • Provide helpful transitions, if needed, when moving from one question to another.
  • Conclude the session by reviewing the purpose, summarizing feedback, and thanking people.
  • Ask “on a scale of 1-10 (10=Very) questions" and have people vote using their fingers.
  • Ask rapid fired “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” questions for certain items.

Recorder Responsibilities

Recorders gather information from participants as accurately as possible. She or he:
  1. Helps setup the room and the recording equipment.
  2. Records each session using a high-quality recorder, and then transcribes the content.
  3. Asks questions if invited by the moderator to do so.
  4. Often provides an oral summary if deemed helpful.
  5. Debriefs with the moderator after the focus group session; suggests ways to improve the experience.
  6. Usually provides feedback on analysis and reports.

  • Sit in designated location, facing the door in case anyone arrives late so that you may greet them.
  • Take notes throughout the discussion, making note of patterns, interpretations and ideas.
  • Avoid participating in the discussion. Only engage with participants when seeking to clarify an item.
  • Offer feedback to moderator about the process.

  • Assume that people will refer to your notes, often several weeks or months later. Provide as much clarity as possible. Seek to gather date verbatim.
  • Organize your information in ways that make it easy for others to understand and use.
  • Forward notes to the assigned person within 72 hours who will archive information received.
  • Email or upload the audio recording to the assigned person with 72 hours of the session.

  • Quotable quotes.  Capture well-said statements that illustrate an important point of view. Listen for sentences or phrases that are particularly enlightening or eloquently express a unique point of view. Place name or initials of speaker after the quotations. Usually, it is impossible to capture the entire quote. Capture as much as you can with attention to the key phrases. Use three periods … to indicate that part of the quote was missing.
  • Key points and themes for each question. Typically, participants will talk about several key points in response to each question. These points are often identified by several different participants. Sometimes they are said only once but in ways that deserve attention. At the end of the focus group the assistant moderator will share these themes with participants for confirmation.
  • Follow-up questions that could be asked. Sometimes the moderator may not follow-up on an important point or seek an example of a vague but critical point. The assistant moderator may wish to follow-up with these questions at the end of the focus group.
  • Big ideas, hunches, or thoughts of the recorder. Occasionally the assistant moderator will discover a new concept. A light will go on and something will make sense when before it did not. These insights are helpful in later analysis.
  • Make note of factors which might aid analysis such as passionate comments, body language, or non-verbal activity. Watch for head nods, physical excitement, eye contact between certain participants, or other clues that would indicate level of agreement, support, or interest.


How will you extend invitations to focus group participants?
  1.  How long will the focus group session last?
  2. How many questions can you ask within the given time period?

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