A recent podcast by the Freakonomics guys reminded me of a bothersome trend in media interviews: The tendency of some sources to respond with, “That’s a great question.” In fact, their podcast is titled, “That’s a Great Question!”
For me, that expression is like fingernails on a blackboard. Every time I hear an expert put forth this trite rejoinder to a radio or television reporter, it diminishes their legitimacy. Don’t waste time with meaningless filler. Go right to the heart of your message instead.
The phrase sounds obsequious. Furthermore, replying with “That’s a great question” casts aspersions on the reporter’s interrogation skills. What are you saying about the quality of his other questions? Are you implying that he hit the jackpot with only one query? Why risk insulting his question-asking aptitude?
I sometimes hear this knee-jerk tendency during media training workshops. Here’s how I try to quash it. When I’m portraying the reporter and the client tells me, “That’s a great question,” I smile and counter, “I try not to ask too many stupid ones” (okay, I do occasionally ask stupid questions, most of the time intentionally, though I do admit to my lesser moments, too). That either gets the point across or opens the door to a discussion of why such fillers are a bad idea.
On a final note, I have one quibble with the Freakonomics team: They cite an expert who labels “That’s a great question” as a bridge. Not quite. In reality, it is a placeholder, much like “Um” or “Er” (or the recently popular “So;” I still cannot fathom why otherwise literate people begin sentences with “So”). Bridging is an entirely different technique (for the details, see “Does Anybody Have Any Answers for My Questions: The 411 on Q&A”).
Placeholders do have their place when you need a couple of seconds to formulate an answer. Rather than use a loser’s phrase like “That’s a great question,” Try something like this:
- Let me tell you why I believe…
- The real heart of the matter is…
- When this issue comes up, I remind people…
I recommend checking out the Freakonomics podcast. It’s instructive and entertaining. And may you never again use that stale comeback, “That’s a great question.”