Category Archives: Secrets of a Master Moderator

Doing Research on Difficult or Sensitive Topics

By Naomi Henderson


While no QRE [Qualitative Research Event] is ever “easy,” there are some topics that are not all that challenging to a seasoned moderator. It is not difficult to present several concepts to respondents and have them pick a winner after discussion. It is not particularly challenging to have respondents review several storyboards and pull out the key themes and the RTBs [Reasons To Believe]. It is very easy to talk about what respondents like and don’t like about their last big ticket purchase.

It is a challenge, however, to talk about terminal illness with a cancer patient or talk with family members about losing a child due to an accident or malpractice. It is wrenching to talk to widows about how they plan to manage death benefit payments 90 days after the funeral of a spouse. As well, it is challenging to talk about gay rights, racism, discrimination, and obesity.

It is hard to be dispassionate when a respondent describes what rage feels like when challenged after presenting food stamps at the cashier and being told “baby diapers don’t quality under the food stamp program.” When the respondent is on the program because she lost her job due to grief when her husband died in Afghanistan, leaving her with twins babies. Even seasoned moderators have concerns when topics like these appear on the horizon.

While the four stages of a QRE [intro, rapport/reconnaissance, in-depth investigation, and closure] are the same, regardless of topic, the way one enters and exits a difficult or sensitive topic is very different. The ground rules vary, the requests for altruistic contributions vary, and how a moderator manages his or her own emotions is very different from a classic QRE on purchase intent, interest in a line extension, or choosing a delivery systems for a new lotion.

It is important to start a QRE on the right foot when the topic is difficult or sensitive and one needs to have mechanisms in place for handling both respondent emotions and the moderator’s own emotions. The interventions or projective techniques have to be chosen with care so they can deliver more than top of mind responses but not so deep that the moderator has entered the “therapy zone.”

There are times when moderators should recuse themselves when they don’t feel they can handle the issue or the emotions in a QRE study and to do so with grace and dignity, giving the client alternatives for how the study might be conducted with another researcher. For example, it would be wise for a female moderator to rescuse herself for a study involving convicted murderers in a maximum security prison on the topic of the additional services that could be offered by the Chaplain’s office.

In summary, the possibility arises that every QRE can be a challenge and a seasoned moderator can often rise to the challenge and obtain key information for client decision-making. However, when the topic is difficult or sensitive, a new set of standards and boundaries come into play and a wise moderator knows if they are up to task when the bar is raised.

I will be presenting a webinar on this topic on September 12, 2014. With years of experience moderating difficult and sensitive topics, I am excited for this opportunity to share my own tools and tips for other moderators. If you are interested, please visit our website for more information or email

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Long Live Focus Groups!

By Naomi Henderson


Last week I read with some interest a Research Access article titled, Are Focus Groups an Endangered Species?” As a seasoned, long time moderator, (having led more than 6,000 focus groups since 1978), a trainer of moderators, and an author, I am obviously quite alarmed at the idea that focus groups should be considered a dinosaur or endangered species.

I will wholeheartedly agree that all focus groups don’t work – they can go wrong for a number of reasons and they can be misused by observers. However, every industry has some flukes; the car industry continues to make cars even though some cars are lemons. They don’t stop making cars because some of them are not working as designed.

The first focus groups were held in America in 1937. In the three-quarters of a century since those first groups, focus groups have undergone a number of transformations as a research methodology as outlined in the chart below:

Chart for 5-28-14


The qualitative research game changed a lot over the last seven decades and with the advent of additional technologies, even more adaptations will continue to be made in the qualitative arena.

Every now and then an article comes out in the press entitled: “Is God Dead?” and it goes on to report issues around the moral decay in the world. Those articles seldom report the growth of church membership in times of crisis, the role that religion plays in handling stress, or how religion provides millions with a moral center to face the challenges of a modern world. In the same way, one should be careful in reading a report on the “death of focus groups” as there is always another side to every story. I believe focus groups are, in fact, thriving and will continue to be applied to new situations over the coming years.

Many arguments against focus groups result from a misunderstanding of the limits of focus group qualitative research.

The argument of Inherent bias: I completely agree that there exists a bias in focus groups and that respondents may sway each other. But a skilled moderator knows how to set a context for avoiding bias. Many believe that the purpose of a focus group is to reach consensus…wrong, on every count. Focus groups with 8 participants, handled correctly, can achieve eight different points of view! There is never a reason to reach consensus in a focus group.

The very nature of focus groups is their subjective biases: convenience samples, paid respondents, and a fixed line of questions. So you may wonder, what’s the point? Because what counts in life, cannot be counted. Try to scale or measure love, patriotism, or brand loyalty. Try to count up a tally of what it means to own a dog or keep a Ford Mustang for 40 years. What counts, cannot be quantified and hearing that information trumps any biases that might be present.

The argument of Small sample sizes: There is never a reason to project the findings of 24, 36, or 48 people in focus groups to a universe and make a quantitative summary. The whole point of focus groups is to understand language, motivators, drivers, perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes which then can go into the development of quantitative surveys where projections can be made.

To call “small sample sizes” a fault of focus groups is to misunderstand the role of qualitative research. Quantitative research asks the questions, qualitative research questions the answers and provides insights that help decision-makers see the whole picture. Any client that would make a marketing decision based on 30 people is delusional and any moderator who supports that thinking is misguided at best and harmful at worst. Qualitative and quantitative research are like two sides of a hand. The quant is the back where the bones and sinews can be easily seen. The soft palm is qual research that possesses the ability to hold something with care. Both are critical to the whole picture of market research.

The argument of Time consuming and expensive to do it right. Yes, qualitative research takes time and is expensive – I have no argument with that premise. I also know that some of the finer things in life take time and cost a lot of money. A good example is aged whiskey. Moonshine can be made in one day and aged one night. But a good single malt scotch, aged 12 years or more, is smooth and satisfying. A lump of coal burns fast and hot, but that same lump pressed under tons of earth for centuries will turn into a diamond and is priceless. Qualitative research takes time but when you know how the target market thinks, you can sell more products and services. In the long run, a little more time with consumers at the front end of a process can send huge dividends to the bottom line.


Naomi writes more about her experiences as a Master Moderator in her book, Secrets of a Master Moderator.

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The Power of an Emotional Handshake

By Naomi Henderson

If a business professional goes to a meeting, the first thing they do on entering the meeting is to shake hands with the meeting leader and often with the other professionals attending the meeting. Real handshakes make a “connection” with the others in the meeting.

Focus group respondents need an Emotional Handshake to connect with the moderator and with each other.

The space of the Emotional Handshake has a number of elements:

  1. Moderator can calibrate who talks a lot and who talks a little by noting responses to introduction questions.
  2. Respondents hear their voices in the room and form their own relationship with the moderator.
  3. Respondents have an opportunity to find who else in the room shares a common theme, usage, or belief system.
  4. Moderator can calibrate participant’s speaking volume before asking key research questions.
  5. Moderator makes an individual bond with each respondent which can be relied upon later when questioning becomes more intense

To create a successful Emotional Handshake requires some planning and good time management. Most moderators start off a focus group with an introduction of themselves, the topic and how long the session will last. That is followed by a review of the key disclosures (mirror, taping, stipends, etc.).

At some point, groundrules or guidelines for participation are given and then respondents are asked to introduce themselves. A good moderator posts, on an easel board, a set of three or four points that respondents should cover as they introduce themselves. By posting the introduction points on an easel, respondents can check the board without prompting from the moderator and can more easily focus on what others are saying rather than trying to remember what they are going to say when it is their turn. Some sample self intros include delivery of data like these:

 2.18.14 Table 1

The idea is to have something that humanizes the self intros and at least one question that is content related but not deep data specific.

As the respondents are answering any of the 3-4 self intro questions, the moderator is listening for a hook – something the respondent says that can lead into a probe question to get more data and build the relationship between the moderator and a respondent.

A good moderator waits until they have answered all the 3-4 questions on the self intro list and then the moderator asks them follow up questions to make the Emotional Handshake.

Think about a real handshake. Person number one grasps person number two’s hand. They shake once (larger handshake) and then another pump (smaller handshake) before their hands separate. Some words they may say to each other in the handshake:

“My name is —-, what’s your name?”

“Good to meet you.”

“Thanks for coming today.”

“I’m looking forward to what you have to say as the speaker today.”

“I’m so glad to meet you after all our email correspondence.”

The chart below outlines how the two “handshakes” (larger/smaller) look in the context of the self-introductions. While the chart below only shows what three respondents would say, the moderator in a six or eight person group will need to find a different hook for all the respondents at the table. The chart below outlines a sample flow of the conversation:

2.18.14 Table 2

What does a good Emotional Handshake buy a moderator in a focus group? A number of benefits occur when the “emotional handshake” is in place:

  1. Moderator has “money in the bank” to use later on in the group.
  2. Moderator knows where to go to pull specific data to forward the probing process.
  3. Respondents are likely to talk more if they think the moderator really cares about what they have to say because of the relationship built in the introduction section.

Moderators who invest a few minutes in the introductory phase of a qualitative event and are careful to have an Emotional Handshake with each respondent will usually find that they will receive a lot more below top-of-mind responses and, thus, better data.

Naomi has been a researcher since 1964, and has led more that 5,500 focus groups, interviewed more than 60,000 people in groups or individually and is a nationally recognized Master Moderator. Learn more about her book Secrets of a Master Moderator here

Down but Not Out in the Bayou

By Naomi Henderson

One of the benefits of being a freelance moderator is the opportunity to travel and conduct research with a wide variety of respondents. Sometimes client work took me to cities like San Diego or San Francisco and other times to places like San Luis Obispo or San Antonio. Whether it was a big city with lots of places to shop and eat or a smaller town with charm and a sense of community, I always found something positive to take away as a memory of that city. I especially loved the opportunity to go someplace warm when my city of residence had cold or rainy weather.

Although I had spent less than 100 nights in the state as a child and young adult, being born in Louisiana made me a “native.” I had visited my grandmother there for a week or so over many vacations when I wasn’t living abroad in Asia with my military family. And when someone asks: “Where are you from?” I always answer: “Alexandria, Louisiana, about 90 miles from Baton Rouge.” I love Louisiana cooking and can make a mean gumbo or jambalaya when called on. I don’t make beignets, but if offered one, I always say “Yes.”

So when a soft drink client informed me that one of the sites in a three site study would be New Orleans in February, I relished the chance for warm weather and a visit home. I plotted a stop for real beignets and hoped I could make it to the Bon Ton Café for their famous redfish entrée.

Flying in on the day of the groups put me at the New Orleans airport around noon with plenty of time to check into my hotel, get a bite to eat, and head over to the facility. I was to meet the client by 5pm in Metairie, a close suburb, for the pre briefing and to look over the stimuli to be presented.

When I landed, it was cloudy with the sun peeking out from time to time, but the air was warm even if humidity was the driver for that warmth. By the time I headed over to the facility on the interstate turnpike, the humidity felt like a wet blanket and it had started to drizzle. The drizzle soon turned into a strong rainstorm that I knew would clear in an hour or so, as those living in semi-tropical conditions come to expect as ordinary.

I had clear directions to the site and so my only job entailed looking for the right exit. Traffic slowed as the rain increased and keeping my distance from the car ahead became a challenge. We all crept along at about 25 miles per hour. My exit was about 2 more miles and then it would be a few quick turns to reach the facility.

Then, out of nowhere, the car behind me runs into the back of my rental sedan with a loud clang and bump. We edged our vehicles over to the shoulder and got out to inspect the damage. The driver of the other car was a young soldier in freshly pressed camouflage print khakis and he was crying.

I thought, “Wow…it was really just a fender bender…not much damage to either car…..I wonder why he is crying?”

He pulled himself together and said: “Ma’am, I am so sorry.  I am shipping out tonight for Afghanistan and I had just left my wife and baby. I was feeling sorry for myself and not paying attention and I hit you. I am so sorry.”

He looked scared and young and contrite all at the same time and my heart went out to him. I said: “Look, you need to get to the airport, and I need to get to a meeting. There isn’t that much damage to our cars. Let’s just forget the whole thing.” He smiled with relief and shook my hand over and over and said: “Thank you Ma’am, thank you so much.”

We got back in our cars and I rode the shoulder until my exit showed up. I got to the facility with time to spare but realized that while he had just tapped the back of my car, the impact had caused a strong whiplash in my neck. I could already feel the stiffness setting in. I thought: “Darn, I’ve got about 6 hours of time before I can get in a bed and I’ve got to lead back-to-back focus groups for a new client.”

I always carry a long silk scarf and a cashmere muffler to put around my neck when the weather is cold or the air conditioning is too high for my comfort. When I got to the faculty, I asked the hostess to put ice in a baggie and wrap it in a tea towel and give it to me. I just told her that my neck was stiff, but I didn’t give a reason.

I put the ice on the back of my neck and wrapped the silk scarf around it to hold it in place then went in to meet the client team and look at the stimuli to be shown. I told them that I had a slight stiff neck and would be using ice to reduce inflammation. They didn’t ask any questions so I didn’t have to give a reason. They were more concerned with the session starting on time than in my personal issues.

They decided to make a shift in the order the stimuli would be shown and to add two more questions in the section on promotions so I made those changes and got my room set up for the first group.

Before starting that group, I asked the hostess to change out my homemade ice pack for a new one and when I introduced myself to the group I made a joke about being Quasimodo for the evening due to a stiff neck. We all laughed and I never mentioned my neck again.

Between the two groups, I got a third homemade ice pack and switched the damp silk scarf for the cashmere muffler, made the same joke for the second group and kept on moderating.

Normally, at the end of a research day, I ask the client to stay 15 more minutes and meet me at the respondent table for a quick debrief on key take away points from the day so we all leave with a similar understanding of what we learned. A simple chart on the easel labeled AHA on the left side and CONFIRM on the right side allows the client to outflow on what they saw/heard and takes the pressure off the moderator to come up with cogent analytical points before a thoughtful review of the whole day.

However, on this night, the client chose to use that debrief time to not only check on key insights from the day but also to start talking “strategic next steps” with the client team and I became the note-taker for that process. Normally, this exercise would have been over by 10:15pm and on this night that would mean I’d be back in my rental car and into my hotel bed no later than 11pm. The client didn’t close out the debrief session until 11:15pm and only did so when the facility staff hostess said, “We are closing down and locking the doors, so you all will have to go now.”

I could not turn my head to the left or right or even shake it up and down — all that ice made the discomfort tolerable for the last 6 hours but did nothing to ease the spasms that locked my head in a rigid face forward position at 11:30pm.

I said goodnight to client at the front door of the facility and promised to meet them at 5pm on the next night in city number two of the study, secretly hoping I could find enough pain medication to deaden the pain in my neck by then. I wondered about the location of the nearest hospital in relationship to my hotel as I got in the car. As it turned out, I sighted an open drug store on the road back to the interstate, went in and talked to the pharmacist on duty who gave me an over-the-counter muscle relaxant that he said would ease the spasms and allow me to go to sleep. The dosage said two tablets every 6 hours; but he told me to take three right away and then the next dosage could be two tabs.

If there is a patron saint of pharmacists, I would like to light a candle to them. The pharmacist’s advice allowed me to sleep that night and be able to move my head the next morning. When I got on the plane, I took the next dosage and by the time I landed, most of the stiffness rested under the mask of medication. I could do my moderating job that night without an ice pack.

As with all events that have occurred in my moderating life, I looked for the lessons from this experience, and came away with these four:

1)      My physical discomfort, illness or health situation should not be shared with the client UNLESS it prevents me from moderating.

2)      Make sure I have items in my briefcase to handle my own health and well-being such as a muffler for cold rooms or planes [or for holding ice packs in place] and some power bars.

3)      Have a personal ground rule like this: If I can sit up and moderate, do so, even if I have some personal discomfort. My body issues are not the responsibility of the client.

4)      Complaining about what is going on with my body is of little interest to a client who has bought my time to reach their research objectives.

I don’t advocate being a martyr as a moderator. If I were truly sick and could not moderate, I would absolutely tell my client. If my body cannot do a decent job of moderating because of a lack of well-being, I would absolutely tell my client. But if I can do the job, even with some discomfort, then I do the job and keep my issues to myself. My clients have invested a lot of time, money, and energy in getting me to a research site to conduct studies to help with short and long term strategies. It is my job to meet that challenge.

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