(Image from via Google Images of course)

I was asked last week for some tips on running a good focus group by a fellow planner. And wrote these…

1.      It’s your room – nobody can talk or do anything unless you allow it. Never forget that otherwise you’ll lose control.

2.      Don’t be afraid of silence – they have to answer your questions – always wait them out even when it’s getting awkward – they’ll break before you.

3.      Listen to people – it doesn’t matter if you fumble to get to your next question because you didn’t have it prepared, but if they realise you don’t care what they’re saying, they’ll stop taking part.

4.      Don’t be afraid to shoot people down – if they’re off-topic or trying to lead the group, dress them down – it’s your room. Not theirs.

5.      If someone gets obsessed with a point that’s off-topic, write it on a flip chart and circle it, then tell them it’s parked – you’ll come back to it later, but it’s not time to talk about that now.

6.      It’s OK for it to be fun. Joke with them or cajole them – keeping it lively will keep them engaged in what they’re doing.

7.      Watch out for silent partners – you want to involve everyone, so you have to make sure you’re pulling people into the discussion.

8.      Whenever people start an aside, tell them it’s “one discussion” – if you can’t hear what they’re saying, you’re missing out on valuable stuff – shut them up.

9.      Try to vary the way you get them to talk to you – don’t circulate in order, but bounce around and change the questions as you go – ask whether they agree with what they’ve just heard, or prompt them to disagree and see how they react. In short, be varied in order and style – it’s OK to throw respondents off balance occasionally to find out how they react!

10.   Write everybody’s name down on a piece of paper at the beginning – it’s easy to forget names but you’ll never get it wrong when it’s in front of you.

What was missing (wisdom of afterthought, eh) was a comment on leading the witness, though – since I felt the person I originally wrote them for knew that for sure.

But I’d now add another point…

11.  Be incredibly careful not to lead the witness. Asking people “do you mean by that XXXX,” “don’t you think XXXX” or “can I sum that up as XXXX” is all bad, bad behaviour! You need to find ways to get them to tell you – you’re better off pretending you’re stupid and getting them to repeat it – even to the point where they start to talk down to you – rather than start putting your words in their mouths. There’s two reasons for this… Firstly, you won’t learn much – just what you thought before you started. But, secondly, because it’s the main thing that pisses off your viewers – they spot it quickly, be they colleagues or clients – making you look biased and unprofessional.