Should You Use Rhetorical Questions?
Rhetorical questions are probably as old as public speaking
itself. Like anything else, this technique has its uses, but can
be very tiresome if used overmuch or in the wrong circumstances.
Remember that a rhetorical question is simply a question asked
that doesn't require an answer from another person. So think
about it, when would such a question be asked? In my opinion,
there are two different times when this kind of question is
asked. First, you ask it when you want the audience to THINK
about the answer, but you don't need to hear those thoughts. The
second time is when you are in a situation where getting an
answer is impossible -- when speaking to a large, distant
audience, for instance.
The problem with rhetorical questions is that they can sometimes
be confusing. I've heard speeches where someone has rhetorically
asked "Think about it; when was the last time you were TRULY
happy?" only to have an audience member say out loud,
"Yesterday!" Needless to say, the speaker was a little
disoriented by this unexpected answer.
Because rhetorical questions can be hard to handle and because
they have a tendency to sound stiff and formal, I recommend that
you ask TRUE questions (ones that require an answer) whenever
you can. This is especially true if you are in a normal speaking
situation, where you can communicate back-and-forth freely with
There are two reasons why I recommend doing this. First, it
sounds much more conversational -- rhetorical questions don't
come up a lot in normal conversation. Second, by asking your
audience actual questions and gathering the answers, you are
creating a sense of participation in your speech. Your audiences
will pay better attention and remember your speech more if they
take an active part in it.
So, the next time you feel like saying something like "We've all
had a bad meal, haven't we?" and going on without pausing, try
saying "How many of you have had a truly BAD meal in the past
week? Raise your hand if you have! [see how many hands go up]
Wow, that's a LOT of bad food, and that's what I'm here to talk
about . . ." You'll find that, by actually communicating with
your audience in this way, your message will be better received.