Rhetoric is a literary device that is as old as history itself. Rhetoric, and by extension, rhetorical questions were first created as works of art and education by the great ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle.
A rhetorical question is most easily made by taking a statement and turning it into a question.
Quite often, a person using rhetorical questions will sound like they are having an argument with themselves.
Rhetorical questions are one of the three methods of writing segues as we introduced in our article How to Write a Segue.
Rhetorical questions are everywhere, you may have heard of them referred to as loaded questions.
A rhetorical question is asked to make a point where you don’t expect to receive an answer, because you already know the answer.
In speeches, rhetorical questions are often used to answer frequently asked questions.
They are also used to answer questions that you want the audience to ask you, and they don’t have the opportunity to do so.
Let’s say you’re giving a speech to an audience of your work colleagues.
Picture yourself leading a team in charge of finding new methods of production. If you don’t find new cheaper methods of production then some of the firm’s employees will be layed-off.
Your team is successful, and has found that a change in current processes increases the firm’s profitability by 20% per year. You are now reporting your team’s results to the whole organisation.
You start by introducing your team’s objective. You use the foreshadowing technique that you learned in part 1 of this series to give the audience a hint that you have found a way to increase efficiency.
You then start to fill in the details. You explain that the increase in efficiency is brought about by a change in process. You know that your colleagues will resist any change and you want to highlight how important this change is.
Instead of telling the audience how important this part is, you include them in your speech by asking and answering the question yourself.
… how important is this change of process?
It is so important, that without this change the firm will have to lay-off 10 staff immediately.
Do you want to be one of the 10 getting layed-off?
By asking the question yourself, you automatically know the answer.
There is no risk that someone will give a valid yet unexpected answer.
Did you notice that there are actually 2 rhetorical questions in this example? Using rhetorical questions in this manner is a safe and effective way to drive home your point.
There are a huge number of rhetorical questions available.
To point out the completely obvious, you might ask ‘is the Pope catholic?’. It is expected that everyone in the audience knows that the Pope is catholic and therefore the answer is yes.
The same goes for other obvious questions like, ‘do fish swim?’, ‘is rain wet?’.
There are rhetorical questions that have no answer that you can use to playfully point out that you don’t know something.
Questions like, ‘what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China?’. Everyone knows that the topic at hand has nothing to do with the price of eggs in China. It is just a playful way of saying, ‘your question has no relevance to the topic at hand and I want you to get to your point’.
On the other hand, there are rhetorical questions where the answer is no.
In the example above, by realising that people don’t like change, you posed the question ‘do you want to be the one to get layed-off?’. You can expect that you’ll receive a no in return, and that you’ll have driven your point home hard.
When it comes to your own speeches, your use of rhetorical questions will mostly be dictated by the type of audience.
Using rhetorical questions in a thesis defence may come across as lazy and unprofessional in front of your academic peers.
On the other hand, a politician addressing their constituents might be expected to use rhetorical questions.
There are far too many ways and methods to make rhetorical questions that we can’t fit them all into the space of this article. In fact many people before me have written entire books on the subject.
If you need help with inserting rhetorical questions into your speeches, look at Our Services page and see whether our writing or coaching service is right for you.
If this article has helped you in any way, or you have a rhetorical question to share with others, please leave a comment in the area below. We can all learn from each other when we leave comments.
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