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Focus Group Moderating Techniques– Part Two: Keeping the Group Moving

There are at least four key principles to follow to create the necessary, conversational dynamics of focus groups that will keep it moving in the direction you need:

  • “Finish the Sentence” (FTS) Probe
  • “Probe the “Group Synergy”
  • “Excuse my Interruptions”
  • “Setting the Table”

One: “Finish this Sentence” (FTS) Probe

Perhaps the most valuable tool of all for a moderator as one seeks to build quick and focused respondent contributions is what I call the “finish the sentence” (FTS) probe. The FTS probe is essentially a question turned into a “dangling” sentence. Instead of saying “Why is that important?” the FTS probe would say: “And that’s important because…” instead of “How do you begin preparing breakfast in the morning?” the FTS probe would be: “The first thing you do as you start to think about breakfast in the morning is to…”

The dangling sentence offers very compelling conversational help. It makes the respondent’s job easy — a sentence completion task instead of an essay question. It also draws on the powerful forces of social politeness. With the probe truly left “hanging” — the last word drawn out as if struggling to finish — the FTS probe becomes a compelling plea from the moderator to “Help me out here, don’t leave me hanging!”

Most importantly, the FTS probe structures the respondent’s answer to focus directly on desired information. It literally “jump starts” the sentence that the respondent will use to give the answer. For example, a natural question of the form “What do you like best about this product?” has a very high likelihood of eliciting background:

“Well, I was raised to be very practical. In my house we always _______.”


“I have three little kids at home, and _______.”

The respondent may well eventually get to the answer the moderator was seeking — but precious discussion time will be lost in the process. The moderator who probes with “The best thing about this product is…” will get the best thing about the product — without the preamble.

Using the FTS probe, the moderator can also attain more precision in the types of answers elicited. If, for example, the moderator is attempting to learn about emotional benefits of a product:

“One good thing about this product is that it makes you feel…”

Or, if a moderator seeks to understand advantages vs. other products:

“Compared to other products of this type, this product is less…”

“Compared to other products of this type, this product is more…”

Effective use of the FTS probe requires some practice and planning. A fine line exists between leading the discussion with effective probes and affecting the answers with leading probes — and the goal of getting candid, realistic answers must of course always be borne in mind. But breaking the “question habit” and using FTS probe sentences for soliciting focus group answers will let a moderator make major strides toward keeping the group on track and focused on the important focus group topics.

Two: Probe the “Group Synergy”

Part of the basis for a strategic choice between group discussions and individual interviews should be the conviction that valuable business learning will emerge from the interaction of individual opinions and the synergy between respondents’ viewpoints that will be produced. When the strategic choice of focus groups is made, this choice should include a commitment to probe the “group synergy.”

The commitment to a continuous focus on the perspective of the group means that the moderator should build answers to every question via input from multiple respondents. Rather than seeking an elaborated response to a question from one individual in the group, the moderator will seek an initial comment from one respondent, use a probe of this comment directed to a second respondent, and elaborate with a follow-on question directed to still a third respondent, e.g.,

Moderator (to group): “What’s the most important feature you look for in a cereal?”

First Respondent: “I have to stick with the brands that my kids have heard of.”

Moderator (to group): “So, knowing your kids have heard of a brand is really important?” (Group nods/responds)

Moderator (to second respondent): “Why is that so important?”

Interviewing the group mind does not mean forcing consensus. A group — just like an individual — can have “mixed feelings” about a topic; it can contain “two camps of thinking”; it can even “be all over the place” about an issue. The key is that it is the group whose opinion is being characterized — as a singular source of opinions and perspective — “We are divided on this issue, some of us feel… while others feel…”

Probing the group synergy creates acceptance of the rapidly shifting conversational floor of the focus group. It creates cohesion among the members of the group around a shared task of clarifying how they (as a group) view the issues at hand. As a framework for the focus group interaction, it will help both the moderator and the respondents move more effectively through the course of the discussion through efficient synergy of group opinion sharing.

Three: “Excuse my Interruptions”

The moderator’s need to interrupt respondents is one of the inevitable tools s/he should use to tighten the focus, and accelerate the pace of the group conversation. Interruptions are obviously and inevitably a consequence of focusing on the “group synergy” as outlined above. At the same time, interruptions always carry a risk that the respondent will be offended, and begin to withdraw from participation in the discussion.

Couching interruptions as a process to learn about the perspective of the group is a strategy that will help avoid offending the respondent that is speaking, and will reinforce that it is normal in the focus group process.

Three elements are key to this strategy:

  • Timing: moderators must time interruptions very carefully, so as to fall at the point when the speaking participant has completed a thought, but before the participant has launched into a second idea
  • Valuing: when and as the moderator interrupts, the thought embodied in the interrupted participant’s answer must be acknowledged with a tone of voice that communicates, “Now I get it!” The moderator is not really interrupting, s/he is feeling insight from the comment and is compelled to ask a follow-up question by the enthusiasm the insight has generated
  • Segue Directly to Another Respondent: the acknowledgment of value must be paired directly with a segue to the next respondent’s to gather input and as a build on to the prior response:

“So one important thing is a large keypad — and a large keypad is important because…”


“So one important thing is a large keypad, and another important thing is…”

With practice, the moderator will build a repertoire of strategic interruption tools to produce focus group discussion that is fast moving and sharply focused, among respondents who all feel closely engaged, and never feel “cut off” or unappreciated.

Four: “Setting the Table”

In order to help people understand the very different conversational rules of the focus group it is important to start developing the norms immediately as the group begins. Regardless of the topic under discussion, we at Jeff Anderson Consulting have found that this is most easily accomplished at the beginning of the first set of questions to “set the table” with an early easel exercise that focuses on very broad attitudes toward the topic of discussion, and then launches a series of open finish the sentence (FTS) probes. For example, in a group discussing breakfast cereals, the moderator moves to the easel and begins “let’s get some ideas up here to kick things off…”

“I like the cereals that are…” (Repeat for 4-5 answers)

“My kids like the cereals that are…” (Repeat for 4-5 answers)

“My husband likes the cereals that are…” (Repeat for 4-5 answers)

As each answer is elicited, the moderator makes a rapid entry on the easel, while launching another FTS probe for another respondent’s input.

A few of the comments thus produced are then probed for elaboration:

“_______ is important to us in a cereal because…”

“Another reason __________ is appealing is because”

An easel exercise of 2 minutes duration following this format will serve to effectively generate the very specialized set of conversational norms that should prevail in the focus group. The respondents emerge from this exercise with expectations that during the balance of the group:

  • Moderator questions will often be in this (strange to respondents) finish the sentence format
  • Respondents will typically give quick answers that complete the sentence
  • Everyone will make frequent contributions
  • “Group opinions” will emerge — as interaction of individual contributions create them


There are four principles for the focus group moderator to follow in creating a group discussion with maximum focus on relevant learning for the client:

  • Using the “Finish the Sentence” Probe — to “jump start” respondents’ answers in the direction of desired discussion and focus responses on the information desired
  • Probe the “Group Synergy” — so that client learning is tied to interaction and synergies of opinion and respondents feel a larger sense of opinion ownership as a group
  • The Moderator presenting Interruptions — so each respondent makes a short but meaningful contribution on each speaking turn, and yields the floor to the next respondent with a feeling of having made a contribution
  • “Setting the Table” Early — with a strategic easel exercise that establishes the unusual rules of group conversation required for a focus group, and sets expectations for respondent behavior throughout the balance of the group

Come back often as I reveal what has worked for me as I share moderating techniques. I invite you to add your contributions as well __ and I hope to hear about your successes and experiences for creating a successful environment for focus group discussions.