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has spread like mold, and is ready for it to die: “I believe that saying ‘that’s a really good question’ is about as outdated a tic or a strategy as telling people to envision the audience in their underwear.”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



" DUBNER: I remember when I first heard you say it. You were giving an academic talk. I think at the University of Chicago, you were discussing research of yours.........."

Maybe this one ...... (17:40)


So... rebusasassafram? This must be for English only speakers I would assume? Are there parallels in other languages and/or has this been studied?

It would serve as an interesting question....!!!!!


"Rebus-acasa-fram" needs its own freakanomics podcast! I want to learn more about the study and I would love to hear Stephen Dubner conduct "rebus-acasa-fram" experiments on the podcast to hear how people actually react!


I agree! I really like the idea of Reebusacassafram, but I'd like to know more about it. My Google search only yielded results relating back to this podcast. I feel like it could relate to questioning how much of spoken language humans actually listen to versus how much we fill in from what we expect or even what we want to hear.

I also get this funny feeling that Reebusacassafram is totally made up as part of some experiment that will be revealed in a later podcast or book...


Maybe it is meant to flatter the interviewer and maybe it stalls for time. But what about the times when the question is actually different from the questions that are predictable or the question forces one to think about the topic in a more novel or more interesting way than anticipated. In other words, if the question has more depth or range than one expects, it's a great question. As an answerer of questions, it is not as fun or interesting to answer mundane questions. A question that causes a little spark in the expert's imagination or allows the expert to think beyond a superficial level is exciting, unexpected and therefore a great question.


Charlie Rose has an incredible likeness to Cormac McCarthy in this interview, both in his voice and thoughtfulness in his response.

Josef Wells

I hear the phrase often in science/engineering, where it means, that the question points out an interesting corner case, counter-example, or other fun, nerdy tidbit. In a work situation, it is often followed by, "not sure, we will have to investigate further".

I never really considered that normal humans might not mean the same thing when saying this.. how sad.

Jowi Taylor

Hi guys - just catching up on my Freakonomics podcasts so I know I'm late to the conversation about Good Questions.
It's great that you got the venerable Charlie Rose to weigh in but you missed the opportunity to talk to the real master about this: John Sawatsky. Sawatsky was famously hired into ESPN to basically fix the sports interview, which for generations had been reduced to long, stat-and-analysis-filled questions fed to athletes left with little to say other than that they kept trying until they scored the points, which made them feel good. While you will still see a lot of that, Sawatsky's impact at ESPN truly raised the bar on the post game interview, leaving more room for nuanced answers from athletes who aren't all the lug heads the previous approach left many believing they were.
I spent one of the most valuable weeks of my life taking a workshop with Sawatsky when I was at the CBC in Toronto. Among the gems he passed along during that course was the real meaning behind many instances of the phrase: "That's a good question". You got closest in identifying the source as the PR industry. In countless examples Sawatsky played for us, the real meaning could be translated as: "Thank you for lobbing me that soft opportunity to present my message track unencumbered by the need to confront the inconvenient details that might have been required by a genuinely good question."
Love the show, glad to occasionally be part of it for some of your Toronto double-enders.



I've noticed it and, yes, it seems to be everywhere, and I really, really, really cringe whenever I hear it. It's almost as bad as repeated "likes".