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

The Philadelphia Story

In RIVA’s last blog, I mentioned that in 30 years I have only missed leading two groups for clients: One in Boston and one in Philadelphia. This is the Philadelphia story that was promised.

After I freelanced a couple of years as a moderator, the workload picked up and I brought my sister Jo Ann on-board at RIVA to help with report writing and project management. As we worked together, I trained her in the business of moderating and she was becoming skilled, although not enough to work on her own yet. She was still working to master the correct time to use interventions and when to stick to the straight: “I ask – You answer” model of moderating.

A prominent food company hired RIVA to conduct a series of groups along the East Coast one spring and I took my sister on that trip. We started in Philadelphia with Group 1 for working women at 6pm on a Monday and Group 2 scheduled for non-working Moms the next morning at 10am.  Following that would be a short train ride to Connecticut for the second city on the four city plan. Having Jo Ann along was calculated to both shorten the reporting cycle and speed up the time before she could be sent out solo as a moderator. We both felt that one or two more “watch and learn behind the mirror” sessions would be needed before we both felt comfortable with her flying solo on a project.

Group 1 went well with the client happy with new insights and a good recruit. In the quick debriefing, the client provided good input about what highlights could go in the future topline report on the project and then we all went to dinner in the restaurant of the hotel where were all registered.

I ordered an entrée that no one else ordered – I recall it had a creamy sauce and seafood as key ingredients. I ordered my traditional tea and enjoyed the social side of the client equation. The dinner ended around 10pm and all agreed to meet for a short briefing at 9:30am the next morning at the nearby facility – within walking distance of the hotel.  My sister and I retired [sharing the same room] around 11pm and both went to sleep. I awoke around 1am, queasy and hot and made the first of many trips to the restroom that night, wearing a groove in the rug between the bed and the bathroom for hours. Around 3:30am, Jo Ann called the front desk to ask for the hotel doctor to visit our room and he came around 4am, pronouncing me the victim of profound food poisoning and he administered a shot of medicine to my arm, proclaiming it would stop the vomiting but render me unable to travel. It did the job but it did not bring down the accompanying fever and I sweated through the remainder of the night, greeting the sunrise with bloodshot eyes, wet hair and a sopping nightgown.

At 7am, Jo Ann called one of the female members of the client team in her room and asked her to come to our room to discuss how to handle the 10am focus group scheduled for Philadelphia and the subsequent train ride afterwards to Connecticut. I brushed my teeth, pulled my hair back with a rubber band and washed my face. Then I put on my robe, sat up in bed, and presented the client with some options. She chose to have Jo Ann pick up the reins of the study and conduct the 10am group and the two planned for Connecticut and I would join the team again for city number three.  She could see how sick I looked and expressed her concerns about my well-being and then departed.

Between 7:30am and 9:30am, I gave Jo Ann as many tips on moderating as I could, told her how to handle some possible problems that might emerge, and wished her well. As she left, I sank back into the bed into a fitful sleep, worried that my illness would comprise the project.

Jo Ann came back around 12:30pm to get her suitcase and depart for the train station in a taxi with the client team. She reported that the client said she did a good job and that they had no worries about Jo Ann continuing on to Connecticut. They recommended that, when I could travel, I should return home and Jo Ann would finish the other three cities in the project to keep the moderating “consistent.”

While part of me was relieved that Group 2 in Philadelphia went well and that I was “off the hook” for moderating in Connecticut, I felt wounded that my baby sister, a raw novice moderator, had landed her first project – right under my nose. I failed to see that she was trained and ready to go. I failed to see that she had risen to the challenge and exceeded expectations – mine and the client’s. I failed to see that her win was not my loss.

When I recovered, just a day later, and talked to a very excited Jo Ann on the phone about her continued success on the project, I did see that she was ready to moderate. She had taken a difficult situation and done well. I saw that her win was also a win for me and for RIVA. I also walked away with these lessons from the “Philadelphia Story:”

1)    Have a plan for clients when projects don’t go as expected.

2)    Be a part of the solution, not a new problem for the client to handle.

3)    Tell the truth at the moment realized and bring the client in on what is happening as early as possible.

4)    Provide clients with options and let them make the decision that is the best for the project rather than telling them what to do.

In subsequent years, I haven’t missed any focus groups due to disasters or illness but I have led a number when I wasn’t in the best of shape. The next blog on this topic will be called “Down in the Bayou” or “A Very Long Night in Metairie, Louisiana.”


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