A rhetorical question is asked just for effect, or to lay emphasis on some point being discussed, when no real answer is expected. A rhetorical question may have an obvious answer, but the questioner asks it to lay emphasis to the point. In literature, a rhetorical question is self-evident, and used for style as an impressive persuasive device.
Rhetorical questions can be used as an effective communication tool during a speech. These questions provide you with a way of controlling the speech and thoughts of the audience.
They are especially useful in engaging the audience and persuading them to agree with you. In this article we discuss how to use rhetorical questions in a speech or presentation.
Edward P.J. Corbett said that a rhetorical question could be "an effective persuasive device, subtly influencing the kind of response one wants to get from an audience".
A rhetorical question is a question that's asked for effect with no answer expected. The answer may be immediately provided by the questioner or obvious:
1. The question may have an obvious answer.
2. The question may not have an answer.
3. The question may be answered immediately by the questioner.
Rhetorical questions with obvious answers are asked about well-known facts, or the answer is suggested based on the question's context. They are used to emphasize an idea or point:
1. Are you kidding me?
2. Can birds fly?
3. Is the Pope catholic?
4. Who knows?
Rhetorical questions which have no answers:
1. Who cares?
2. What's the meaning of life?
3. How many times do I have to tell you not to...?
4. Why me?
And I would like to give a few examples from Shakespeare.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? - Sonnet 18
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? - The Merchant of Venice
Mighty Caesar! Dost thou lie so low? Are all thy conquests, glories, and triumphs, spoils, shrunk to this little measure? – Julius Caesar
Rhetorical questions are not a necessity but they can be valuable. They can be used in many different ways to:
1. Engage the audience
2. Increase the variety of your presentation
3. Influence and persuade the audience
4. Subtly draw attention and emphasis specific points
5. Introduce topics/ideas
6. Make the listeners think about certain topics
But let's figure out how to use rhetorical questions in a speech.
1. Engage the audience
Ask a rhetorical question to engage the audience and pause to allow them to think of an answer. This gets the audience to actively participate rather than passively listen as they create hypotheses or resolutions.
For example: asking "Why is practicing mindfulness beneficial for reducing anxiety?" would be more effective than saying "Practicing mindfulness exercises can reduce anxiety levels because..."
Speakers may start presentations with rhetorical questions to increase the likelihood of the audience staying engaged.
2. Personalise your questions
Make the audience feel as though you are speaking to each member individually by using "you" and "your."
For example: asking "Do you want to lose weight without feeling hungry?" would be more effective than asking "Does anyone here want to lost weight without feeling hungry?"
3. Persuade the audience
To get your audience to agree with you, ask a rhetorical question where the answer is clearly a "yes". Once the audience begins agreeing with you they are more likely to continue agreeing. You will be familiar with this type of persuasion in casual conversation, for example, "Nice weather today, isn't it?"
Another way to get the audience to agree with you is to show them that you're similar. Show your listeners that you have shared experiences and that you understand their problems.
For example, "We've all experienced being so stressed at work that we come home and don't feel like doing anything, haven't we?"
4. Evoke emotions
Make the audience feel the same way you do about something by asking questions that trigger emotional reactions.
For example, rather than saying "X has never helped our community" ask "What has X ever done for our community?" This will trigger a strong emotional response because the audience will come to that conclusion that "X haven't done anything."
5. Emphasise a statement
After a statement has been made use a rhetorical question to get the audience to think about that statement.
For example, "The amount of plastic in the ocean is rising at a considerable rate. How much damage will it take for you to help reduce this?"
6. Predict the audiences questions
Think about your topic and audience when planning your speech. Try to predict what the audience may want to ask. In your speech use the predictions as rhetorical questions and answer them.
For example, "As a dog owner you may think 'What should I be focusing on to keep my dog healthy?' The answer is providing your dog with the correct nutrition and therefore food."
You could also introduce one or more rhetorical questions at the start of your speech and explain that you will answer them during your speech. For example: "In the next 20 minutes let's explore the answers to these questions." Asking these difficult questions and promising you will provide the answers will increase interest and attention.
7. Answer questions with questions
Answer a question, either an audience member's or your own, using another rhetorical question. Generally both the questions have the same answer.
For example: "Have we met the targets again this year? Is the Pope Catholic?"
Try to make the second question unique and relatable to the audience because common examples can sound cheesy.
8. Consecutive rhetorical questions
- Increase the impact of your argument
Ask multiple rhetorical questions consecutively - each one more specific or more powerful than the previous. This way your content will have a greater impact on the listeners.
For example: "Isn't their skin lovely? Don't you think it looks really clear? Can you see any blemishes? Wouldn't you like to have skin like that?"
- Show conflicting opinions
Use rhetorical questions consecutively to highlight the complexity of a topic by asking questions in which the answers provide conflicting viewpoints.
For example: "How can we reduce the crime rate in the UK? Should we rehabilitate offenders? Should criminals be punished with longer sentences? Should we create initiatives targeting at-risk children?" etc
If you start your speech with this technique, you can structure your speech or presentation around it, with each section addressing a different viewpoint.
Rhetorical questions are an effective way to gain the support of the audience but ensure that you do your research ahead. This means finding out who your audience are, such as, their general views, attitudes, age etc. With this information you can plan rhetorical questions that will be appropriate and tailored to your listeners.
2. Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University. "Rhetorical questions!". specialized language definitions.
4. M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Jacqueline S. Palmer "Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America".