My friend Frank Rizzo of The Hartford Courant apparently spends a good bit of time listening to NPR. On more than one occasion, it has caused him to have little eruptions on Twitter. His frustration is caused by the repeated refrain of, “That’s a very good question,” from a presumably wide variety of guests.
Now I have no idea which NPR station Frank listens to, or which programs, but I don’t doubt his characterization at all. I am quite certain that he hears this all the time, and not just on NPR. We all do, though we may not even realize it.
“That’s a very good question” is a ploy that media coaches teach interview subjects to use; I imagine a number of people have simply picked up the phrase for their own use, through the very repetition that has Frank riled. Following a question from a moderator, a fellow guest, or perhaps an audience member in a town hall setting, “That’s a very good question,” along with its cousins, “I’m so glad you asked me that” and “I’ve been giving that a great deal of thought,” does two things at once.
The first thing it does is buy time. Only the most verbally dexterous can immediately formulate a perfect answer to a complex inquiry, so “TAVGQ” is a reflexive placeholder, preventing dead air or the dreaded, drawn-out “ummm…,” while an answer, or perhaps a diversion to a less fraught topic, develops in some other portion of the brain. In confrontational situations, it prevents the moderator from scoring points by pressing the topic in an available gap before the guest even replies to the original question.
Secondly, The Phrase That Shall No Longer Be Spoken also flatters whomever has asked the question, because it praises their interrogatory skill and, even if it doesn’t fool them, it shows the listeners or viewers what a sympathetic, considerate person the interviewee can be.
And so, with decades of experience, I’d like to offer new conversational placeholders during media opportunities, to allow the gathering of wits, and which in many cases can serve to redirect a troublesome dialogue.
1. “You’re brave to broach that. Who among us hasn’t confronted that issue and been afraid to talk about it openly?”
2. “Before I answer that shrewd query, I’d like to make certain that you don’t need to put quarters in the meter.”
3. “I was just discussing that at home this morning and it’s amazing that you thought to bring it up on the very same day. Incredible. Psychic.”
4. “I’m so glad we’re going to get into that, but first, may I try on your gorgeous jacket?”
5. “That was such a concern of my late mother’s. I have her picture here somewhere.”
6. “Bill, George, Barack and I have been grappling with that for some time, but not one of us has managed to summarize it as clearly as you just did.”
7. “Before I go on, I have to tell you that your voice is mesmerizing. Do you sing?”
8. “I’m sorry, I was distracted by the image of us in the monitor. Looking at myself next to you makes me think I should stick to radio and print, don’t you think?”
9. “That really is one of the essential questions of modern life, but unfortunately I can’t elaborate on it due to national security.”
10. “Wait! What’s that over there? Oh, sorry, I thought I saw a bat. You were saying?”
Study these phrases and learn them well, and one day soon, you can speak to the media skillfully, taking control without ever lapsing into the predictable.