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Ron Sathoff's Speaker Tips: 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 your audience.

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.

2002 © Ron Sathoff

About the Author:

Ron Sathoff,
manager of
InternetWriters ,
offers a full range of services to business and professional speakers, including speech writing and editing, personal coaching, and presentation development.
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