How to use Rhetorical Questions in your Speech, with Examples

April 05, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

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.

What is a rhetorical question?

A rhetorical question can be "an effective persuasive device, subtly influencing the kind of response one wants to get from an audience" - (Edward P.J. Corbett)

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.

  • The question may have an obvious answer
  • The question may not have an answer
  • The question may be answered immediately by the questioner

Examples of rhetorical questions

General examples

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 emphasises an idea or point:

  • Are you kidding me?
  • Can birds fly?
  • Is the Pope catholic?
  • Who knows?

Rhetorical questions which have no answers:

  • Who cares?
  • What's the meaning of life?
  • How many times do I have to tell you not to...?
  • Why me?

Examples from Obama and Shakespeare

President Obama's immigration address

Ever since the 5th century BC, orators have put their points across by asking rhetorical questions whose implied answers clearly support their point. This rhetorical passage comes from Obama’s immigration speech:

"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?" - Obama's Immigration Address

William 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, triumphs, spoils, shrunk to this little measure? - Julius Caesar

Pitch with rhetoric questions

Benefits of rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions are not a necessity but they can be valuable. They can be used in many different ways to:

  • Engage the audience
  • Increase the variety of your presentation
  • Influence and persuade the audience
  • Subtly draw attention and emphasise specific points
  • Introduce topics/ideas
  • Make the listeners think about certain topics

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?"

Presentation with rhetorical questions being asked

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.

- Show supporting opinions

You can also consecutively ask questions in which the answers provide similar viewpoints. This is similar to repetition which is used to continually highlight an important point.

For example: "Which company achieves over 90% in customer satisfaction? Which company provides one of the best employee benefits programs in the country? Which company scores highest in employee happiness and fulfilment? Of course, our company does!"

Rhetorical questions are an effective way to gain the support of the audience but ensure that you do your research beforehand. 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.