That’s a Great Question! (Ep. 192)

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has spread like mold, and is ready for it to die: “I believe that saying ‘that’s a really good question’ is about as outdated a tic or a strategy as telling people to envision the audience in their underwear.”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



I think you skipped over the most obvious reason for space-fillers like "that's a good question". It's the same principle as the flipping hourglass or rotating flower cursor glyph on your computer: to let the user know the machine is working.

Which leads into a question I've sometimes wondered about, and which I wish you'd asked Mr. Rose: how do interviewers ever manage to get meaningful answers to non-trivial questions, if they aren't previously rehersed? I know I couldn't give a good answer to many questions without taking time (sometimes a lot of time) to think out implications and figure out how to phrase the answer so that it conveys my meaning.


Another verbal tic that I hear very often on NPR during interviews both by the interviewers and the interviewees is the word "so", used to preface any statement. It used excessively and I wonder if it is a tic, a habit that has caught on collectively.


Stephen mentioned this as one of his habits.


Almost all the way to the end...this one word you give Levitt,whats the right way to spell it?

Could not find it on the web

Stephen J. Dubner

Yeah, I couldn't find it on the web either -- not sure that it's actually ever been written down! Anyway, check out the transcript of this episode (link above) to see how we spelled it.

Daniel Ehrlich

How does one spell `rebus-acasa-fram'? Or, did I get it right?

Stephen J. Dubner

Very close! I should say "very close to how I made up the spelling," because I've never seen it spelled. Check the transcript of this episode (link above, as it is for every episode) to see how we spelled it.


I used to have a manager who would do new hire training. In it, he said there are 2 types of questions, "Good Questions" and "Great Questions". "Good Questions" were ones that mean you are paying attention and he had an answer for you. "Great Questions" were ones that also meant you were paying attention, but that he didn't know the answer, (but he would get one for you later on).

So now I qualify my answers the same way as he taught us and I use "Good Question" and "Great Question" for my answers.

Judge Mental

When one asks a question and the reply is prefaced with "That's a great question", what is the asker's assumption to what that phrase implied?
- The forthcoming answer is interesting and/or important
- The question was difficult and it took a great amount of work to ascertain the answer
- The question has no clear answer
- The person answering the question hadn't considered it before
- The forthcoming answer is contrary to what one would logically assume or would have been impossible for the inquisitor to have deduced on his/her own

I think anything of those are reasonable definitions of "good question", but for any given inquiry, not the inferred meaning.

All this being said, the example in the podcast where the guy prefaced his answer to "How long have you been doing this?" with a "That's a great question" clearly shows that it is sometimes used a meaningless linguistic tic.


Steve Nations

That's a great question. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says this all the time. And, to me at least, it sounds completely disingenuous. Like he's just trying to flatter the questioner (and listeners too) so that at the end of the interview they'll have a better impression of him. I don't like it.

Fred Walling

How do you spell Rebusacasafram?


Fred Walling

Oh, mine was NOT a great question -- seeing that it was already asked a bunch of times. Should read before I write. duh. ;-)

Robert Gibson

"Reebusacassafram" as written in the transcript is currently a Googlewhackblatt! One word that returns only one result in a google search.


When teaching, I have often said, "That's a great question" and immediately add "meaning that I have never been asked that question before". I'm indicating that it is just that and not that it's a better question than any other.


Don't you think that also the interviewee flatters himself by "answering" a "great question"?
I find it amazing how many layers of meaning this simple phrase has.


While listening to this podcast on my way to and from work I think I heard two distinct points of view. The first part of the podcast seemed to focus on using "That's a great question" in a psychological sense, as in many cases PR interviews. It makes the question answerer look just as good to acknowledge the question asker. The second part of the podcast I heard the art of the interview. How Charlie Rose puts people at ease and really open up and make them feel invested in an interview process. These were the first two points of view I heard while listening and would welcome any feedback. This is a very well produced podcast and I thoroughly enjoy it on my commute to work.


I used to work in a small PR firm and this was part of our media training for clients. We would coach clients to use this phrase to cover up thinking time to find the right phrasing for the answer. We'd also coach clients to not actually answer the question, but rather search for the similarities in the question to one of their "talking points" and bridge to that. That is about using an interview with the press to get out what the interviewee came there prepped to communicate about their company or cause. It is about storytelling and controlling the interview. The questions don't matter so much if you are able to say what you came there to say.

I know longer work in PR, I got an MFA and use my storytelling skills for good.

DW Horton

Interesting that after your interview with Charlie Rose, you said basically "that was a great answer". Do you think that serves a similar purpose to "that's a great question"? I imagine it's said just as much, because I think we love to act like we recognize when someone said something interesting or clever, which gives the other person the impression that we're on the same cleverness level.
Great podcast (I really mean it).

Brian Gulino

"That's a great question.", means, "I wish you hadn't asked that question."

It is also patronizing.


I think it has something to do with education: responding in an encouraging way to undergraduates.