The Zoom Art of Herding Cats
As we adapt to lockdown, we have all needed to find new ways to work. Our continuing need to conduct focus group discussions has caused a shift to holding group interviews via Zoom, Teams, Skype, etc. This has brought new challenges to moderators, whose jobs can be tricky even with face-to-face group discussions.
As a member of the McGowan transcription team, I have transcribed scores of Zoom-based focus group discussions. I notice that most groups will include one or more of the following characters:
- The Garrulous One: Just likes talking. Has to comment on every point made by anyone else, taking a disproportionate share of the time allocated to the discussion. Sometimes, apologises for dominating the discussion and promises to stay quiet, only to chime in again at the first available opportunity. Views any moment of silence as an intolerable void needing urgently to be filled.
- The Interrupter: Cannot let anyone else complete their point. Will apologise for interrupting, sometimes repeatedly, only to continue the behaviour. I have even heard one of these, a serial offender, become upset when interrupted by someone else!
- The Shy One: Sits quietly, observing but not participating. When invited to contribute, may express doubt about their ability to articulate their ideas. May not speak at all for several hours.
- The Free-Ranger: This conversational buffet-grazer cannot confine their input to that which is relevant. Flits between seemingly unrelated subjects of discourse. Leads the group away from the intended subject matter.
- The Would-be Lawyer: Views discussion as argument and wants to win! Believes those who disagree with them require to be convinced by the presentation of further evidence.
- The Socialiser: Thinks they’re at a cocktail party. Irrepressibly gregarious, this extravert wants to be friends with everybody. Closely related to the Free-Ranger. Can contribute valuable witticisms.
Frankly, my hat goes off to moderators of groups. I would find this situation incredibly difficult to manage, especially face-to-face. Technology, though, has provided a few helpful tools which are unavailable in the face-to-face setting.
Master Zoom Moderator at work
Recently, I was privileged to hear a Master Zoom Moderator at work. Under his moderation, the group’s task was completed fully before the time allotted had quite elapsed, and his respondents expressed their satisfaction with the discussion. His management of the group was masterful. Here is what I noticed him doing:
During his introductory comments, the moderator set the tone with his speech and demeanour. He told the group clearly that they had a lot to discuss and that he would keep them moving along so as to cover the questions they had been asked to address. He himself spoke clearly and concisely. He explained that everyone would stay muted until he unmuted them. When they wished to contribute, they would raise their hands and he would unmute them one at a time. He would make a note of who wished to speak and in what order they had signalled so as to ensure that each had a chance to speak.
As a side note, muting is invaluable to the quality of any transcript because other persons in the homes of the participants sometimes shout or laugh or play music. Doorbells or phones ring. TVs blare. Children interrupt, or dogs bark. All such sounds will be interpreted by Zoom as a more important voice speaking, causing it to mute all other sound. Many interesting and important points can be lost in this way. Also, I could hear the moderator making his notes with a ballpoint pen, which was excellent. The sound of typing is interpreted by Zoom in the same way as doorbells and dogs, with the same result.
During the introductions
During the introductions, once a participant had imparted the required information, Jedi Moderator slid in a cheery, ‘Thank you very much, David, and on to you, Patsy’, with laser-like precision. He was affirming, polite and his cutting-in ability was as sharp as a scalpel.
As the group began the main discussion, the moderator read out each question and threw it open for comment. When somebody raised a hand to signal their desire to comment, Super Moderator would say the person’s name and then the names of those who also wished to speak. ‘Rob, then Sue, then David.’ This helped to curb the impulses of the overly talkative, because they were aware that there was a queue. Also, they knew that Super Moderator would cut in with a smooth ‘thank you’ the second they began to indulge in maundering of any kind.
In this way the moderator kept the object of the discussion sharply in focus. By not allowing participants to wander into irrelevant conversation, he made sure they all remembered that they were working on a task together.
If one or more people did not answer a particular question, the moderator would ask them by name whether they had anything they’d like to say before the group moved on to the next question. He kept the pace lively throughout, the whole group remaining aware of the need to make their points reasonably succinctly. He also managed to do this in a cheery, positive and polite way and without seeming to make people feel hustled along.
His method seemed to help the participants remain present in the discussion because they weren’t tuning out while somebody else pontificated. The whole tone of the interview felt not controlled or rushed, but clear and efficient.
The group responded very positively. Several participants expressed their enjoyment of the discussion and their satisfaction with it. There was a strong sense that everyone had felt heard. I found it very interesting that this moderator’s active management style really brought out the best in the participants and optimised the value of the whole conversation.
I will never know who this clever person was or how he gained his moderation skills, but if he’s reading this, I do hope he will consider conducting Zoom moderation classes. He has a great deal of expertise to share.