That's a really good question. Now, stop it.
Accomplished communicators — journalists, PR pros, educators, politicians, attorneys — know it’s their job to ask the really good questions. They also know to prepare answers for the really good questions they may be asked. But I beg you, please. Please stop saying “that’s a really good question.”
As conversational crutches go, That’s A Really Good Question (TARGQ) is magical. As the questioner, you feel heard and appreciated. As the speaker, you’ve positively connected with the person who posed the question. It’s a stalling tactic wrapped in a compliment.
That’s a win-win, right?
In the moment, between those two people, it can be. But take it from the voice of experience: beware what comes next.
- Your answer is complicated or lengthy: It’s gratifying when someone asks you a thoughtful, insightful question. “They get it! They’re with me!” In your enthusiasm to respond in kind, don’t lose sight that a succinct response is always more memorable (and appreciated) than a protracted one, no matter how excited you are to give it.
- The answer feels like déjà vu: When someone asks something that you covered in your remarks, take note mentally not verbally. Maybe that person wasn’t listening, but then again, maybe that part of your presentation isn’t as clear as you thought.
- The subject is tricky: Because you’re well prepared, you’ve already developed talking points on sensitive topics. Prefacing talking points with TARGQ is like holding a magnifying glass over an ant hill. You’re focusing attention on the details rather than the big picture (plus the whole getting burned by the blazing light of the sun thing).
- Your answer isn’t really good: No matter how well prepared you are, sometimes you just don’t nail it. You’re only human. But if you elevate the question with TARGQ, the audience is expecting an answer that rises to the same level.
- The answer escapes you: No matter how prepared you are, there’s always the possibility that someone will stump you. Never say “that’s a really good question” in place of “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out for you.” If you acknowledge that a question is a really good one but don’t have an answer ready to go, the audience will wonder why you didn’t prepare for it.
Still, in spite of your best intentions, you say it: “That’s a really good question." Then you deliver a perfectly constructed and succinct answer.
What do you say after taking the next question?
It’s a trap. If you say TARGQ again, it renders the statement meaningless. If you don’t say it, the next question — and the person who asked it — is downgraded by default.
I have a rule about shoes. When I buy a pair of shoes, I get rid of an old pair so my closet maintains a constant shoe level. So instead of TARGQ, what? The best approach is to take a breath, skip the crutch, and answer the question. If the pause itself terrifies you, ask the person to repeat or rephrase the question.
If you have other ideas, please share them in the comments so I can add it to my vocabulary, because, as I confessed earlier, I’ve said TARGQ more times than I can count. From the lectern, at my desk, on the phone and in staff meetings. Probably said it to my husband.
I’ll stop if you will.
If you’d like to see if I take my own advice, feel free to join me February 3 as I discuss my first ever solo photography exhibition in the Arlington Museum of Art.
This story was originally posted on January 21, 2016.