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How to Moderate Focus Groups Like Oprah

focus group / qualitative / current events / featured

I am not usually interested in self-help books or “personal transformation” activities, but when a childhood friend invited me to go with her to a workshop hosted by Oprah Winfrey, I decided to embrace the potential cheesiness and buy a ticket. For two days, we (and a few thousand other people) listened as Oprah and a team of speakers talked about how to create “The Life You Want.” I heard all sorts of things over those two days---some of interesting, some useful, some a little crazy—but I found myself surprised over and over by how much Oprah was like a focus group moderator. As I watched her tell stories about her career and manage the crowd of thousands, I was constantly taking notes on things I wanted to start using in my moderating. Three things that she said and did stood out as being valuable for me as a moderator: focusing on the stories people have to tell, making complex activities easy for us to follow, and creating a safe space for us to share our ideas.


Everyone Has a Story That We Can Help Them Tell

The first day of the event was an evening presentation by Oprah, and for two hours she talked about her life and how she made her way to where she is now. It’s a gripping story and she had the arena full of people in the palm of her hand. One of her stories was about how she first started doing the kind of talk show that made her famous. She was working as a newscaster in Baltimore, but she didn’t like the job, her boss didn’t like her, and she was about to get fired. She managed to move from the evening newscast to a midday human interest show, and on her first day she interviewed the Carvel ice cream man. Oprah described what a revelation it was for her to realize that that this person had a story he wanted to tell, that she could help him tell that story, and that it would be so compelling it would be TV people would want to watch. Oprah went on to build an empire by helping people tell their stories and staying just as interested as she was that first day. My new goal is to approach everyone in my focus groups the way she approached the Carvel ice cream man.

Leading Activities Like a Pro

The second day of the event was less of a presentation and more of workshop. At various points throughout the day, in between the speakers and music, we used an Oprah-branded workbook to complete exercises. We filled in pie charts, made lists, visualized people and things—all of the activities were designed to help the us figure out what steps to take to achieve our life goals. But what I kept focusing on was not the content of the exercises, but the process Oprah used to lead us through them. Each exercise had a page in the workbook for us to fill in, but no specific instructions, so you had to wait for directions and couldn’t work ahead. Oprah would start each exercise by describing what we were going to do and then, before we wrote anything, she would quickly use the giant arena screens to show an example of how she had completed the activity. Once instructions were complete, she would give us time to complete the activity on our own, while playing peaceful music in the auditorium—the music made it feel less like were taking a quiz and more like a creative activity. After each exercise she would bring a few people up on stage and, rather than have them go through their entire process or every answer, would ask questions about a few key items and then use those answers to start a new discussion. No matter how complex the activity, how sensitive the topic being discussed, or how distracted the crowd might have been, she kept an arena full of people focused on these activities and all of these strategies could be used in a small-scale focus group.

Creating a Safe Space

Over the course of the two days, Oprah asked us to do some pretty silly things, including join in a dance party hosted by the in-house DJ and complete a short workout in our stadium seats that had us all punching the air. On more than one occasion I leaned over to my friend at the start of something and said, “I’m not doing this.” But then five minutes later I, and the vast majority of the audience, would be happily participating. How did Oprah make this happen? Certainly part of it was that we were all fans who had paid to be there, but I was also impressed with how she created an atmosphere that made her audience feel comfortable. First, she was fully participating in whatever we were doing, even when someone else was leading things—if Oprah was doing it, it couldn’t be that unreasonable, right? Second, there was never any sense of judgment. At no point did Oprah and anyone else laugh at anyone for what they were doing or what they said and any comment or response—from the life-and-death to the frivolous—was treated as if it was a valuable contribution. It felt like a very safe space where all of us, including Oprah, were sharing an experience.

Now, of course, a televised talk show and a qualitative focus group research effort are different. But Oprah is Oprah for a reason—she is very good at what she does. In my next focus groups, I plan to work to create an atmosphere in my room that is a fraction as safe and welcoming as the atmosphere Oprah created in that giant area.

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