One of the key challenges of any moderator and a key determination of success for any focus group or interview is creating rapport. The moderator is attempting to get people to speak on their associations, feelings, opinions, experiences, etc, moments after they have been placed in a room full of strangers. It is vital that the moderator overcome this obstacle quickly and establish rapport.
The rapport is not just between the moderator and the respondent(s), but also among the respondents themselves. If people are not comfortable talking in front of others, even if they feel that the moderator is a long-lost friend, they won’t talk or if they do, they will only skim the social veneer.
A variety of techniques can be used, each according to the situation. Yet, I have found one that seems to work in most cases. During introductions, I often describe what is being looked for in a qualitative interview (i.e., feelings, associations, emotions, experiences, opinions, etc). It is a step that is rarely in the actual discussion guide and often missed by moderators. While it does increase the length of the introduction by a few minutes, it has the advantage of getting everyone on the same page. Respondents will know what information you are looking to uncover, what types of follow-ups you might ask, and why.
It is important to point out that the moderator is not “feeding answers” to the respondents. Rather, he/she is explaining the type of information being sought.
The groups that seem to have the most problem getting into the qualitative interview “mode” are generally those who are in their early to mid 20s. The reason is obvious: they are still making their way into the world, finding their own style, etc and others’ opinions have a weighted importance and effect. I have had respondents change their answer to its direct opposite because another stranger voiced a polite disagreement. The solution here is to reiterate to them what you are looking for in the interview – opinions, associations, experiences, etc. This has also been necessary at times with older groups, of course.
If the moderator gets everyone on the same page, the respondents will work with him/her because they understand the goal of the interview, they understand what type of answers the moderator is looking for, and they can even work among themselves to get beneath that dreaded social veneer.