Focusing on What’s Important

 In Telling Your Story

Focus Groups: How They Help You


Rob Levin holding a focus group for Dallas Theater Center, Dallas, Texas.

For over twenty years, I’ve been conducting focus groups with new clients. These focus groups are typically held at the beginning of the research phase and the writer is in attendance. For the writer and myself, as the book’s editor, the focus group is a prime opportunity to put our fingers on the pulse of the organization. By the time we arrive, we’ve already been through the client’s website, had long conversations with the client, perused the web for related articles, and perhaps read additional material provided previously by the client. But now we are able to actually talk to warm bodies and experience a taste of the personalities. Some of my questions are specific and expected—“What is your job title and on a day-to-day basis, what do you do?” Some are broader—“What makes a really good (or bad) day for you at the office?” On a college or independent school campus, I might point to someone and pose a scenario—“Your niece is thinking of going to school here and she’s coming to visit so you can give her a personal tour—what are you going to show her and why?”

Some of the questions go nowhere and I quickly change direction. Other queries are designed to intentionally be uncomfortable—“The Acme Manufacturing acquisition was a disaster. What happened?”

And then lastly, of course, this: “What stories should we be telling in this book?”

One thing to note is that if the CEO, or head of school, chancellor, or chairwoman is sitting in, I ask them beforehand to not contribute until the very end—otherwise her or his comment can change the tone and force the direction in a way that isn’t entirely conducive.

The best focus groups develop their own head of steam and within twenty or thirty minutes  the participants are ignoring me and talking across the table to each other, marvelous story ideas erupting like fireworks, the writer furiously typing notes, just trying to keep up. You can’t pull this stuff off the website. After ninety minutes, we’re done—and the book will be richer for it.

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