Public Speaking Tips for Rhetorical Questions
Public Speakers often refer to rhetorical questions, as if there is one type of question called a rhetorical question. Usually in Public Speaking classes a rhetorical question is defined as a question asked by a speaker that does not need or expect an answer.
Hence when a speaker stands before a room and asks:
‘Have you ever doubted your own ability?’
they are not necessarily expecting a voice from the room to call out:
‘Yes. I have.’
What they probably are expecting is that internally everyone will answer to themselves.
This is why this form of rhetorical question is ideal as an opening line of a presentation, as it engages the listener immediately in an internal dialogue.
However, for today’s purpose, I would like to broaden the term ‘rhetorical question’ to any thought or utterance a speaker could use during a speech or presentation which might end with a question mark.
Therefore, even when Hamlet says:
‘To be or not to be?’
he is also stating a rhetorical question even though he as no audience and is only talking to himself!
On the simplest level whenever speaking to an audience any form of question is a good technique to use, as it immediately increases audience engagement
(on some internal level they have to listen and respond) and it is the simplest way to break the barrier between speaker and audience by actually creating an interaction.
10 forms and uses of questions in Public Speaking.
The danger with most presentations is that the gap between the speaker and the audience is never properly bridged. The speaker broadcasts to the room, speaking at the audience, rather than communicating with them and the audience passively accepts all the words washing over them. Thermostat questions are essential for all trainers as well as for speakers who want to interact more completely with their audience. You may not necessarily want to break your flow by having the audience interrupt you while you are presenting, but by asking a few thermostat questions every now and then, you can make sure that the audience is still with you: little thermostat question that check the ‘temperature’ in the room.
Does that make sense?
Are you all with me?
Are we OK with that?
This is not a full question; it is merely an add-on, tagged to the end of a statement. It is a way of gaining agreement at the end of a statement and thereby creating a little bit of interaction and maybe even winning a couple of nods from the audience.
We could all use this type of question more often, couldn’t we?
It would improve interaction, wouldn’t it?
That makes sense, doesn’t it?
In your head you are obliged to respond, aren’t you?
and once you start using them, it can be very hard to stop, can’t it?
A statement that is turned around into a question
This is the most basic form of question. For instance:
This is fun.
Isn’t this fun?
This is the best idea.
Don’t you feel this is the best idea?
or one that you will hear a lot:
I am right!
Am I right?
In each case what would otherwise be a bald statement of fact is turned around to become an opportunity to connect with the audience.
IN essence this is similar to #2 as you could still make the statement and then add a question tag.
This is the best idea, isn’t it?
A question that has no, or requires no answer
Why do I even bother?
What is it all about?
Does anyone even care?
Because it is stated in the form of a question, like all questions, it helps to bridge the gap between the speaker and the audience, but it goes further and creates a bond with the audience, because these might be the exact same questions that they are wrestling with, maybe at this very moment! And you are showing them they are not alone in the world. These are big life questions where there probably is no simple answer and so like the Italian footballer Mario Ballotelli who always seemed to be in trouble had a T-shirt with ‘Why always me?’ emblazoned on it (and even though in his case one would be tempted to start an answer with …’Well!...) the question was meant as a rhetorical gesture, accompanied by raised shoulders and open arms, indicating how we are all the victims of the same arbitrary injustice.
A question where everyone already knows the answer
This is the go to question for politicians and masters of ‘the bleeding obvious’.
the purpose of this question is merely to gain affirmation and it is a very good technique for bringing everyone together.
Are we going to make America great again?
Are we going to stand for this?
Are we just going to stand by a let them take everything?
Audiences enjoy knowing the answers! You can already hear the loud affirmations and declamations coming back to the speaker.
A question that shows we are on the same team
Similar to #5 and sometimes carrying the fancy rhetorical name of anacoenosis, this is a question that has an answer that is obvious to everyone in the room. For instance if I was speaking at a political meeting and asked the question:
‘Which is the only political party that really cares for the British people?’
a meeting of Labour Party supporters would probably all cry out:
‘The Labour Party!’
However I could ask the exact same question at a conservative meeting and I would get a different answer.
So not only are we asking a question with an obvious answer to the people in the room, we are binding everyone together by affirming that we are all of the same opinion and members of the same team.
‘Who is the greatest football team?’
is likely to get different answers depending on whether you are in a pub in London, Liverpool, or Manchester.
A question as a refrain
Again this is very popular in politics or in motivational or sales training.
Once again the audience knows the answer (I hope you are noticing a trend here. Most of us like to think of ourselves as intelligent, so if we know the answer we feel better about ourselves and the speaker.)
If you have ever been to a live concert you will know that there is something special about ’being there’; the atmosphere, everyone together in harmony with each other. This form of question gains its power by being repeated regularly during a presentation. Maybe not all the audience knows the right answer at the beginning, but by the end, everyone does and responds ‘en masse’ (and may I say we are not a long way away from demagogue brainwashing here).
The best example I heard was from a sales trainer at a conference who was talking about how important it is for a successful salesperson to overcome rejection and keep moving forward. He shared his mantra for when a meeting had not gone to plan, which was
as he focused on the next meeting rather than the unsuccessful one he had just experienced.
Part of the structure of his presentation was to tell stories of his negative sales experiences and how each time he would cry: ’Next!’
Gradually he involved the audience by asking the audience:
‘So what did you think I said?’
After a few more examples he no longer needed to ask the question, he just indicated to the audience and they all cried:
A question that genuinely needs an answer
This is where we genuinely (apparently) do not know the answer.
So this form of question can be used when the presentation is some form of brainstorming session, when we are exploring the possible answers with the audience. The potential danger is that the speaker could lose control, especially if the answer is not one they predicted.
Therefore, we can use this technique in a more structured way, by asking the question, knowing with range of possible answers and then steering our response back to the ‘real’ answer that was there all along.
Questions to assert power
This might be used in a speech that is attempting to persuade the audience of something.
Typically this might be a series of questions:
‘Are we agreed that A = B?’
‘Then surely if we also agree that all Cs are in fact Bs, then A must also = C?’,
which brings us to the weighty world of rhetorical arguments built on premises like
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
therefore Socrates is mortal
which since we are examining the power of questions for engagement, could be presented as
‘If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man….what does that make him?’
Questions as structure
Often the simplest and most effective way of structuring a presentation and engaging the audience at the same time is to structure the material around open questions:
What, Why, When, How, Where, Who
Typically one would choose three of those questions and use them as the framework for the presentation.
(i) This is what we do
(ii) This is why we do it
(iii) This is where we do it
So instead of the more static structure of:
we have the more dynamic, what, why and where.
this means that as we present our material we can engage the audience more effectively be introducing each section with a question, rather than a statement:
‘So, what do we do?...
And you may be wondering
Why are we doing this?...
And now you may be thinking
How does this work, where do we have the most impact?...’
The use of questions is an attitude of mind.
It means that your presentation will be seen more as a two-way conversation rather than a one-way lecture.
It forces you to consider your audience’s perspective
It encourages you to pause and vary your delivery as you ask your questions and wait either for a reply or just allow them to register internally with your audience.
And surely that is what we want, isn’t it?