"That's a Great Question" is the New "Um."

There is a new public speaking epidemic roaming the earth, threatening to distract you from hearing otherwise interesting conference talks, panel discussions, and podcasts. People used to say “Um, um, um,” driving audiences to flee to the free drinks at the opening night reception. Now, all I can hear is "That’s a Great Question” preceding just about every response to a question.

In the words of Marlon Brando, “The horror. The horror. The horror."

I was at a conference in mid-November 2015 watching a panel discussion. One panelist began every response with "That's a great question.” I mean, every single response.

First of all, if every question is great, none are great, but don’t get me started on that. 

After hearing the phrase, “That’s a great question” a few times in a row, that was all I could hear. It was distracting, and I found myself thinking about that instead of listening to the responses. The panel discussion was an otherwise interesting one, but I could not help being distracted by that phrase. 

“That’s a Great Question" is the New “Um."

We’ve all heard speakers who say “um” repeatedly and thought to ourselves, “Great Scott, this person uses “Um” more often than any other word in their response. 

Yesterday, a colleagued of mine, Dan L, came into the office and said to me, “Bill, I thought of you last night. I was at a talk and one of the speakers said, “That’s a great question” before every response. 

Why Do We Say “Um” and “That’s a Great Question” 

Why we do say “Um” or “That’s a great question” anyway?

That’s a great question. Let me explain.

“Um” and phrases like it, are filler words that we use for two reasons. 1) people say phrases like these while their brain catches up with them while they think of what to say; and 2) People hate the silent pause.

How Do We Stop It?

The solution to this public speaking epidemic is simple. When a question is asked, just pause, wait until you know what you want to say and then answer the question. There is no “3 ways to stop saying “Um” or “That’s a Great Questions.” Just do this:

Question: How can I get more people to share my Linkedin Updates?

Wrong Response: “That’s a great question. What I find is that when I add a statistic to a post on Linkedin, I get 4X the likes and 2X the shares. We did some A/B testing on 87 posts and the results were totally obvious." 

Right Response: [Pause. Then Answer.] "What I find is that when I add a statistic to a post on Linkedin, I get 4X the likes and 2X the shares. We did some A/B testing on 87 posts and the results were totally obvious."

I know, it sounds a bit like that doctor’s visit you had last week with the sarcastic doctor.

You: “Doc, it hurts when I bend my elbow.”  
Doctor: “Don’t bend your elbow."

But we have to start somewhere. If you are on a panel or speaking at a conference, just be aware of it. Embrace with silent pause and just answer the question. 

Save “That’s a great question” for the extremely rare moments when someone actually does asks a great question. 

Embrace the Pause

The second part of the solution is to listen for it at conferences and consciously notice it. Once you notice it, you will not be able to un-notice it, and you will be like my colleague, Dan. You will be at a talk or listening to a podcast and hear "That’s a great question” repeatedly, and you will be so distracted by it that you will you will think of me and this blog post, and you will not want to sound like that. Once you become aware of this underground stall tactic, you will not be able to un-hear it, and you will automatically catch yourself doing it.

I wrote this blog post as one small effort to help prevent myself from using fillers. I hope it helps you too. 

Call for Comments

  1. What other filler words must be stopped? 
  2. Did you use filler words and then overcame it? How?