That’s a Great Question! (Ep. 192)
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has spread like mold, and is ready for it to die: “I believe that saying ‘that’s a really good question’ is about as outdated a tic or a strategy as telling people to envision the audience in their underwear.”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.