Focus Group Transcription – What Is It?

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I can remember very clearly in my early days of working as a transcriber at McGowan Transcriptions of the trepidation at receiving a focus group discussion to transcribe. ‘How will I ever be able to transcribe what eight people in a room are saying, as well as the moderator, when they are all talking at the same time?’.

When confronted with a group of people talking excitedly about, for example, a new mobile phone, I realised how different it was to just listening to a depth interview where the moderator and respondent take turns to speak. Groups are a whole different ballgame and it is extremely rare that people will let each other talk without being interrupted. It never ceases to amaze me how so few people have the ability to listen to what another person is saying because they are so eager to get their own opinions out there!

The art of conversation is sadly lacking from the many focus group discussions I have transcribed over the years. But, having said that, there is nothing worse – and it must be a moderator’s worst nightmare – than a group of people who have nothing to say. Then it is down to the skill of the moderator to make the group feel comfortable and relaxed and to ask the right questions in the right way.

Having transcribed many focus group discussions over the years, I have definitely developed the skill of listening to two, three or even four people all talking at the same time in order to be able to make sense of who said what when. I believe that everybody has an opinion and every voice should be heard, so it’s important that we, as transcribers, endeavour to transcribe everything that is said, although sometimes this can feel like an impossible task…

One very amusing and very loud group of young guys springs to mind who were discussing lager. The focus group was based in a pub and most of the respondents were drinking alcohol. As the alcohol flowed, the respondents became louder and louder, and more and more animated and excited. Their language became very ‘colourful’, to say the least, and they spent most of the interview laughing at each other’s stories of drunken nights on the town! After listening to these guys for an hour and a half, I felt like I had been out on the town with them too!

I guess the moral of the story is not to give alcohol to respondents if you want to get some meaningful quotes from them! Although, I have to say, I did laugh out loud on numerous occasions and it certainly gave me an insight into the social lives of young guys today (which, hopefully, also helped the researchers).

When conducting focus group discussions, it’s really important that the moderator takes control and ensures that every person gets a chance to air their views. There is nearly always one person who likes to dominate the conversation in a group but, as each person who has been selected is representative of many other people just like them, the opinions of the quieter respondents should be drawn out. It is then the job of the transcriber to ensure that we also ‘hear’ those quieter respondents because they are usually much more softly spoken.

Focus group transcription requires the ability to be able to hear what every person is saying – even if they are all talking at the same time. The skill is in being able to pick out a voice and to follow what they are saying from start to finish, and then to pick out the next voice whilst you ignore what the other people are saying. The challenge then is for the transcriber to present all of these different conversations in a format that flows and is easily readable with, hopefully, not too many over speaking time codes marked on the transcript.

Blog Written By Shelly Tarling