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No matter what content or structure you have planned for your focus group research project, the first thing a moderator needs to do in any group is to get the participants talking. When people walk into a focus group they generally don’t know anyone, and may not even know what the discussion will be about. Those first few minutes of the discussion can set the tone for the whole group, so it is critical to start off with an icebreaker that makes your respondents feel comfortable and willing to participate.

The icebreaker is the first question that the moderator asks in the group and is usually part of participant introductions. It is often the only question that participants will feel they have to answer, since it is hard to decline to participate in an introduction, and it’s their first opportunity to offer an opinion.

With that in mind, your ice breaker question should be:

  1. Simple. You don’t want your respondents to have to think hard about an answer, or have to respond with a complicated story. This is the first time they are saying something to a room full of strangers, so don’t ask something that they may struggle with.
  2. Accessible. Don’t ask what kinds of cars the participants drive or where they went to college, unless you are absolutely sure those questions will apply to everyone. The icebreaker should offer everyone a chance to participate, not make participants feel excluded or unqualified from the beginning.
  3. Light. Even if your focus group is going to address serious topics, keep the icebreaker appropriate, but light, like small talk at the beginning of the serious conversation. Don’t ask about current events, for example, since that could be both divisive and depressing.
  4. Not something that will create hierarchy or judgment in the group. Asking what people do for a living, for example, could result in participants starting the group feeling like their opinions might have more or less weight than others’. You want to avoid creating any sort of pecking order that might affect discussion later.

 

You may want to make your ice breaker relate to topic you’re discussing, or use it to gather basic data on participants. While you wouldn’t want to start out asking how participants feel about an issue, this can work as long as your research-related icebreaker is fairly neutral. For example:

  • For a study with parents: How many kids do you have and how old are they?
  • For a study with students: What is your favorite class that you’re taking right now?
  • For a study on air travel: When was the last time you were on airplane and where were you going?

 

If the ice breaker you planned goes poorly, there’s no need to panic. That one question is not going to make or break a whole group, and a strong moderator with a solid discussion guide will be able to get things back on track. But starting a group in a positive way that makes participants feel capable of contributing and willing to offer opinions will make everything that follows easier.

About the author

Kinsey Gimbel

Kinsey Gimbel

Kinsey Gimbel's primary areas of experience are qualitative research, survey design and administration, data analysis and reporting, and program evaluation. She trained in focus group moderation at RIVA Training Institute, the industry's leader in qualitative research training, and as the lead moderator for FMG has conducted online and in-person focus groups with populations including veterans, medical professionals, federal employees, high school and middle school students, and military members. Kinsey has conducted research, training, and evaluation projects for organizations including the Department of Defense (DoD), Veterans Affairs (VA), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), General Service Administration (GSA), and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Before coming to Fors Marsh Group, Kinsey spent nine years at Macro International (now part of ICF International) working on data collections and program evaluations for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She also worked at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she coedited the sourcebook Leadership Resources: A Guide to Training and Development Tools.

Kinsey earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and received her undergraduate degree in History and Sociology/Anthropology from Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. She also received a Graduate Certificate in Survey Design and Data Analysis from the George Washington University. She is a member of the American Association of Public Opinion Research and the Qualitative Research Consultants Association.

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