That’s a Great Question! A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Steven Straiton)

(Photo: Steven Straiton)

Having been at the Freakonomics Radio podcast for a while now, I’ve noticed a trend. During an interview, you ask someone a question and, before they answer, they say “That’s a great question!” Believe me, most of the questions I ask aren’t that great. So what’s going on here? Where did this reply come from? Is it a verbal tic, a strategic rejoinder, or something more?

That’s the topic of our new episode, called (shockingly) “That’s a Great Question!” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

You’ll hear from the linguist Arika Okrent, who examined a few huge databases for us (including the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English) to see if the phrase is indeed as common as it seems. Okrent tells us that Americans use it much more often than the British. “And most of the instances,” she says, “were interviews on CNN or NPR or different one-on-one interview situations where there was an expert being interviewed about something.”

We also talk to Bill McGowan, whose Clarity Media Group teaches people how to talk to the media. (He wrote a book called Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time.) “That’s a great question” may have originated in media training, as a “bridge” — a way for an interviewee to take a question in a different direction than the interviewer intended. McGowan too has noticed that the phrase has spread like mold, and is ready for it to die: “I believe that saying ‘that’s a really good question’ is about as outdated a tic or a strategy as telling people to envision the audience in their underwear.”

And we sit down with the master interviewer Charlie Rose to talk about what makes a question truly great, and how to formulate a question — whether you’re talking to the President of the U.S. or your grandmother — that creates a genuine conversation rather than a pro forma back-and-forth. (Levitt and I have been the beneficiaries of Rose’s Q&A technique three times, appearing on his show in support of Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics, and Think Like a Freak.)

You’ll also hear Steve Levitt talk about why he says “that’s a great question” so often, and what he’s trying to accomplish by saying it.

 


RenoJon

I do coaching in public speaking. I tell my students that if you answer a question by telling one person "That is a Good Question", but you do not use that phrase for another question, you are, by omission, telling the second question asker that their question is NOT a good question.

Scott Bennett

Complimenting the question seems to have usurped the Socratic approach of stating your own question, then answering it. Instead of saying, "I don't like that, but I'll get on with it.", people would say, "Do I like it? No. Will I get on with it? Yes."

Dick Cheaney was big in that movement, usually tweaking the question he asked himself so it was a much more softball query than the one originally asked to him.

SB

Simon

My experience is that American's mean something different by "that's a good question" than the rest of the world. American's mean "I have a good answer" while most other cultures mean "I don't have a good answer".

Susan Fritz

I haven't listened to the Podcast yet, but am supremely curious. This phrase is among my all-time least faves. I would rather someone just open their mouth and produce chalkboard screeching. To call it being disingenuous, is generous. If you really want to grow a pair (of ovaries or testicles), just man up (or woman up) and say, "I don't know and I don't want to tell you the wrong thing, so I am going to go find the answer (since I am a mortal human and don't know everything) and get back to you with a sensible, responsible answer. More later, after I actually listen to the podcast!

joejoebells

Is there a good question to leave for a comment? Maybe, questions should be answered for what most of them are, with a retort, "What specifically do you mean?" Or, the all time best answer, "Based upon your question, you appear to have conflicting feelings about your mother?' According to Freudian psychiatrists, one can never go wrong with telling someone they have conflicting feelings about their mother.

Jonas Broth

You can keep the rebusacassafram. I'll take the frim-fram sauce with the ossafay (and chafavas on the side).

joy

Hi Stephen
I enjoyed the podcast very much as I have noticed how much more prevalent this "verbal tic" has become in the UK, though, as you say, it probably started in the US.
I think it's been around for many years as I recollect, when working for AT&T in the late 1990s, it was used a lot by the sales folk (to flatter prospective customers and/or buy much needed thinking-on-your feet time!)
If you are concerned about your use of "so" you might want to think about trading it for "now". This is much used by programme presenters on our beloved BBC Radio 4!

Lora Karen

When I hear someone saying "That's a great question," what I tend to hear is "I don't know the answer to that." No expert wants to come out and say "I dunno" when asked in the media about their topic of expertise. And often the question that is being asked calls for an "unknowable" prediction on the interviewee's part.

Greg

My most hated verbal tic is when someone uses the phrase, "if you will....". 99.9% of the time this phrase serves absolutely no purpose.

Rich

Can someone point me in the direction of obscure economic country data (statistics)? I know one of the podcasts or books I read pointed out this measure as every economists dream, but i cant seem to locate its origin. Thanks

tom

I love the show! I sat through a meeting today and every time I heard "that's a great question"' I wanted to laugh so bad! Keep up the great work.

Jim B.

I think you've answered this in a previous episode. People say "that's a great question" because the three hardest words to say in the English language are "I don't know."

dan

No episode without Obama lately. Got to switch to the Clintons pretty soon... or else. Long live the comrade-s. And let them prosper filthy rich too.

Tom Finn

Just finished reading "Super Freakonomics" I wonder why you so readily accept the medical and pharmaceutical companies claims such as statin drugs reduce heart attacks. Or that adding floride to water systems has saved about $10 billion per year in dental bills.

I direct your attention to "Do Cholesterol Drugs do any good?" BusinessWeek January 17, 2008 which shows that while statin drugs do reduce LDL cholesterol levels, that has almost no effect on the chance of having a heart attack.

Putting flouride in drinking water doesn't reduce cavities. Flouride is a poison that works by killing bacteria in the mouth that damages teeth. Rinsing your mouth with it might help but swallowing it doesn't.

Also, you make the statement: "...healthcare is, by and large, just like any other good in the economy." I disagree. I contend that healthcare is a perverse economic good (a term I made up) because, unlike other goods that have declining marginal utility, the more healthcare we have, the more we need because we live longer and thus need a larger quantity of increasingly expensive treatment.

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Mike Pagan

Long ago I heard a speaker at a technical conference describe it this way:

"That's a great/excellent question" = I know the answer to the question, and it will make me look smart (or my product look good)

"That's a good question" = I don't know the answer, but I know how to stall for time on it

"That's an interesting question" = I have no idea how to answer

Jeff Eckert

There are 2 more selfish reasons:

1. Sometimes they are implying, "You are finally hitting on something that I think is important, and I have a brilliant answer that will make me look good!"

2. People are constantly asserting their control and approval in conversation. People often want to have the last word, say a confirming statement, or even say "Yep" in a conversation. This signals that they have dominance and are approving of what the other person is saying. As a counselor, I have found that if I say, "Are you angry?" the person always responds, "No, I'm frustrated." Of course, if I say, "Are you frustrated?" they respond, "No, I'm angry."

Saying "That's a good question" is a way of controlling the interview and giving approval of what has been said.

Donald Gordon

The sound of the cash register at the start of the podcast must have been recorded many years ago. I can't remember the last time I heard it in a store. Does the sound come from a library of daily sounds?

Regarding a colonoscopy, I had one perhaps ten years ago. At the end of the procedure the doctor told me that he had seen everything that he had wanted to see and that there was no problems found. He than told me that he had a problem since he couldn't remove the scope. He had been three hours late getting to the clinic because of a snow storm, but he could have left home earlier. I wasn't pleased to wait that long for the procedure and then to be told that it was impossible to remove the scope; I told him to cut it off leaving me two yards of wire that I could use to hock up to my T.V., and if there wasn't any decent shit on T.V. could watch my own. He didn't have a comeback and his aids said nothing. I hope that he stopped using his little joke after that.

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rnh

I haven't noticed it being used as a bridge to alter the question. Maybe it's working.