Monthly Archives: April 2013

Moderating: A Fine Balance of Art, Science, and Humor Stories and Lessons from Seasoned Moderators | Story One

The Story

Traveling is a big part of the whole game of moderating qualitative research events [QREs] for clients.  Normally the moderator travels to garner regional differences or to hold an event where a large cadre of desirable respondents reside.

Early in my career, Boston was chosen as a site for the first city of a six city tour. In each city, women used the intended products differently based on the region of the country. All the leg work was done efficiently and in plenty of time, leaving only the final task of flying to Boston in sufficient time to meet the client for a pre-briefing and to look over final concepts and prototypes to be shown.

My personal ground rules for traveling to conduct QREs:

  1. Be sure to arrive in the host city at least five hours before client briefing time
  2. Get to facility before the client to handle any recruiting or set up issues and meet my facility team for the sessions so I have their support
  3. Leave enough time to get a high protein meal so I don’t eat [and burp] during the QRE

With a 6 and 8 pm session scheduled in the Long Wharf area of Boston with women who work in downtown Boston, I planned to meet the client at 5pm. To allow for my rule to arrive 5 hours earlier, I needed to land in Boston by noon.  Since it is an easy flight from the Washington DC area, I left on the 11am flight, due to arrive at 12:15pm. The easy cab ride into the Long Wharf area from Logan Airport would only take 20 minutes and I had my late lunch place all picked out in my mind.plane ahead

I took off on time, easy shuttle ride on Delta from National Airport in Washington DC. With about 50 miles to go before landing, the pilot announced that we were descending and to adjust our seatbelts. I could see the Boston Harbor coming up and the part of the river that eventually flows alongside Harvard University. Abruptly the plane suddenly veers off to left and begins to quickly ascend. My side of the plane let me look down at the airport where we were not landing – showing me a horrific site – the plane ahead of us had crashed into the runway with half the plane on the runway and half in the harbor. Smoke billowed out like a black umbrella and the scene looked more like a war torn country than placid Logan airport. As we quickly ascended, my last view showed racing cars and trucks with flashing lights swarming toward the smoke.

Our pilot announced that we were being diverted to Pittsburg since Logan was now closed due to an accident and the buzz and chatter on the plane escalated with people asking questions of the flight attendants, who didn’t have any answers. I secretly gave thanks I wasn’t on that plane and then felt “survivor guilt,” ashamed of my living when I knew others were dead.  Passengers on my plane quickly turned inward – subdued with the horror we had seen.

An hour later, I landed in Pittsburgh with a voucher for a future flight and an evening “off” since I couldn’t get back to Boston to lead the focus groups.

I called my mother first to let her know I was safe and then called the client and offered them three options since they were already in Boston. We only talked briefly of the incident at Logan. These options were presented:

Option 1:        Cancel the group and come back later to do a Boston study at the end of the process [it was City # 1]

Option 2:        Cancel the group and live with five cities in the study

Option 3:        One of the client team members could moderate the session

hard lessonThe client chose Option # 3 and I asked to brief the “Guest Moderator” who volunteered for the evening.  When she came on the line, she was perky and excited, bubbling over with “I’ve always wanted to moderate” comments. I knew there was little time to “train” her in the myriad skills and techniques used by seasoned moderators. And I knew that many clients who watch through one way mirrors have often said: “This doesn’t look all that hard – I think I could be a good moderator.” It is a hard lesson to learn that watching many groups does not confer “ability to lead one.” I had to pick 3-4 tools and tips to coach the Guest Moderator so that decent data could be garnered for the report.  Here’s what I told the Guest Moderator in a 10 minute phone call:

  1. Take the time to build rapport with each respondent at the beginning…don’t rush the introductions.
  2. Make sure to leave yourself out of the “data pool of information” and to completely avoid injecting her own opinions…just honor, without affirming, that you heard what they said.
  3. Work to honor the two-thirds rule [don’t ask a new question until two-thirds of the room has answered the question on the floor].
  4. Watch the timeline so there is plenty of time to answer key research questions.

I let her know I would talk to her the next morning at 7:30am before she left her home to journey to the next city so I could hear about her experience and see if there would be any changes to the guide based on insights garnered from respondents. Here are some of the things she told me in that call:

“It was really hard not to put my opinion in the conversation.”

“I got so many notes from the backroom – those notes really distracted me from what I was doing. – I’m never going to send another note to a moderator!”

“I didn’t know how to handle a really talkative person in the 6pm group – she wasn’t a dominator…she was just long-winded – I was worried I’d get another one in the 8pm group.”

“I still have a headache from last night! I was “on duty” emotionally and physically for 6 hours straight – one before the session, the four hours of the two groups, and the one hour debrief. – How do you do this and remain sane?”

She saidAfter she had vented – I acknowledged her for her courage in leading the groups in front of her colleagues. She said: “That is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Then, she told me about insights gained from respondents and the decision to drop one of the concepts out of the rotation for City # 2.  She then said: “I’ll be happy to give you back the baton in Chicago tonight!

I learned a number of lessons from this incident and they are outlined below.

Lessons Learned

Lesson # 1:   Have a backup plan when project elements don’t go as expected.

By giving the client options for what to do in my absence, they had some ownership of the situation. We talked about the costs for cancelling and going forward and what was best for the project. By “coaching” the Guest Moderator, an opportunity existed for a client team member to walk a mile in the shoes of a moderator and hear, first hand, from their target market.

Lesson # 2:   By having a Guest Moderator conduct the Boston Groups, I learned that empowering the client had a benefit for me as well.

After that trip, I worked for that client contact person, The Guest Moderator, another 4 years – usually doing two or three projects a year. She never sent me another note and was a “real partner” on the development of the guide – her experience made her a better client and me a better vendor.

Lesson # 3:   Holding on to my skill set [i.e., being unwilling to coach client as a Guest Moderator] would not have served me, her, or the project.

I learned that giving up knowledge is not the same as losing it – I borrow this quote: “When one candle is used to light another candle, the first candle does not go out.”  My client gained a better working knowledge of the art/science of QREs and became a more insightful user of qualitative research.


I spent the night in Pittsburgh at a Hyatt Hotel [didn’t want to miss a chance to earn some points!] and had a lovely dinner. Watching the 11pm news, the lead story gave many details about the crash at Logan airport and the lives lost – everyone aboard died.

How sobering to watch the news and realize that as a “road warrior” with travel to multiple cities every month, I am always at some risk for accidents.

However, after more than three decades of travel and millions of miles in cars, trains, and planes I’ve been blessed with missing only two project nights in that whole time: Boston and Philadelphia. That story will be the subject of next month’s blog!

Naomi Henderson opened RIVA in 1981 and is its CEO, directing policy and procedures for two divisions: Research and Training. She is co-founder of the RIVA Training Institute, where she serves as a Master Trainer writing curriculum for public and custom courses and fulfilling her dream to leave the industry in better shape than when she entered, by training researchers in the art and science of rigorous qualitative research techniques. Naomi has been a researcher since 1964, and has led more than 5,500 focus groups and interviewed more than 60,000 people in groups or individually. Learn more about the RIVA Training Institute at