A Guide to Using Rhetorical Questions in Public Speaking

A guide to rhetorical questions in public speaking

Asking a rhetorical question is difficult, right? Think about it, isn’t it confusing? Asking a question but not expecting an answer. What is the point of it if we don’t receive an answer?

Did the above lines make you think? If yes, great! If not, read them again before moving forward from here.

In the first two lines there are three examples of rhetorical questions. The first two questions require the listener (in this case, the reader: YOU!) to think and either agree or disagree with what is being spoken. It unconsciously makes the listeners create a connection with you and piques their interest in your topic.

Let’s move on to the third question: “What is the point of it if we don’t receive an answer?”

This one is a little different from the first two; here we do not expect the listener to make a decision about whether they agree with us or not, we induce them to think about the topic and form their own opinions.

Rhetorical Questions are mainly used to engage the audience in thought and indirectly make them connect their point of view to the audience. In Public Speaking, rhetorical questions are a tool which helps take a speech to the next level and build an individual’s skills.

While asking questions which make the listeners think, take a pause to let them process their thoughts and form an opinion before you move on. Make sure that you pause long enough for them to ponder about it, but not very long as it may seem that you are waiting for a verbal answer.

Usually, a 2-3 second pause works best, while not zeroing down on your audience with eye contact and/or an expectant look. 

Here is a TedEd video on Rhetorical Questions: How to use Rhetoric to get what you want – Camille A. Langston

Pro Tip: You can decide the length of the pause by delivering your speech by yourself and judging the appropriate length or you can even ask a friend to listen and help you figure out the length and timing.

So, what is the point of rhetorical questions, you ask?

Long story short, a good rhetorical question will make the audience realize or think about something that they weren’t aware of or hadn’t thought about, it could be a different point of view or a whole new topic or maybe even something else. It will make them think, gain some insight, and form their own opinion.

Arrows pointing to a target to the motive of asking rhetorical questions in public speaking.

How does it help me?

1. Adding variety:

Purple duck among yellow ducks show how rhetorical questions stand out in a speech.

While delivering your speech, a chance of pace is always refreshing and welcome. While all the facts or jokes you are going to be spewing out is going to make it interesting, breaking away from it and instead making your audience think for you is a great way to get them invested. You can do it right from the beginning or as and when you find points you want to emphasize on. 
This brings us to our next point:

2. Drawing attention or emphasizing on specific points.

No one can remember a speech they heard completely. Even if they really paid attention to it. What they are going to remember is the essence or the crux of it and maybe a few quotes here and there. To make sure that your audience takes back the points you want to highlight, adding rhetorical questions to make them think forces them to relate their thought with that point. This creates an experience and a rhetorical question is a great way to make it one they won’t forget.

3. Make them think:

Audience in thought when posed by a rhetorical question.

A cliff-hanger, however annoying it may be, leaves us thinking. Use it to your advantage. A rhetorical question is a great way to end your speech and leave the audience to think about that topic. By thinking about what you said and what they think, their experience remains positively engaging because in the end, they were called upon to answer your question.
It can be something as simple as “Think about it” or you may even add in a hint of mystery by using something like: “0.99 is not exactly equal to 1.00. Or. Is it?” 

4. Engaging the audience: 

Forming your own opinion gets you invested in the topic, a simple agreement/disagreement will do the job as well (not a déjà vu, we talked about this earlier.) But (there always is one, isn’t it?) To get the right reaction from your audience, you need to factor in the timing, your tone, and the phrasing of the question. A poorly constructed rhetorical question can have the opposite effect, may even put off your audience or they might not even notice that there was a question. All of it ends in you not creating an impact. That is not what we want, is it?

How to frame a rhetorical question:

Framing rhetorical questions

The easiest way through this hurdle is to not write it at all.
Before you begin your downward spiral into this paradox, hear me out.

When people speak, they unknowingly often use multiple rhetorical questions in daily conversation. So, the next time when you sit down to write your speech, go about it as an informative and formal or informal conversation (based on your requirements) with the audience. 

Once you have a good chunk of content with you, review it. Oftentimes, unknowingly, a rhetorical question creeps into the text and simply enhances the effect of that point.

Additional Benefit:

Another perk of writing with this method is that your questions won’t seem forced or out of place in the sea of information you will be putting out but if delivered correctly, it will leave a lasting impact and may even hold the power to hit that beautiful sweet spot, right between informative and interactive.

When aiming to make an impact, it is imperative to make sure you modulate your voice and use the right tone.

Simple, monotonous tunes and sounds tend to make us drowsy no matter if the topic is about rocket science or the latest gossip about your recent ship. Changing your voice according to what you feel about that particular segment and what you want to highlight will go a long way.

Pro Tip: A good way to practice and understand voice modulation is to stress on different words of the same sentence. For example: “She didn’t say she killed him.” Try repeating this sentence and each time stress on a different word.

For the purpose of introducing the topic of voice modulation and tones, this is all I have to say. However, if you are interested in taking your skills to the next level or building on it or maybe even simply exploring the topic, we have written an article covering explicitly that topic you can find it here: 8 Essential Tips on Voice Modulation and Tonality

But what if you haven’t framed any rhetorical questions during your caffeine induced writing spree?

Don’t worry, you didn’t stick with us so far because we did not help, did you?
What we need you to do is:
1. Fish out your speech and give it a read.
2. Find out and highlight all those points you want to emphasise on or make sure people remember. (Do this after you have already skimmed through it once.)
3. Frame a question for those points and write those points as an answer after the question.
(Tip: Make sure to keep the question direct and not a loose end, you need to lead the train of thought in the right direction.)

Here is an example:

I want to make sure that the audience takes a moment to step back and realise that they might be becoming a corporate slave and at the same time, I intend to break the illusion of success being tied to money or their job title.

What I have written:

Working 12-15 hours a day for the next 50 years of your life is not success. True success means having the freedom to go out on a ride if the weather feels nice. Yet, most of us waste away our lives as corporate slaves.

Point I want to highlight:

Work is not your life, just a part of it.

How I will use it in my speech:

It was the perfect weather to go out for a ride, but here I was, making my way to work, another day, same mundane routine.
These are the instances that make you wonder,
is it really worth it?
Is it worth letting the ink on your bucket list fade?
Is it worth the time and effort you put into drafting one email or making one presentation?

Tell me, is it worth it? (Pause for effect)
I don’t think so. Climbing the ladder of success shouldn’t mean that if I get off it, even for a moment, I have to begin from the first rung.
Success is not just the money and the job title, is it?

In the above example, there are multiple questions that have been used and each question can lead you into a different line of thought. It is up to you to decide where you want to lead the audience and build from there. 

How do you take them there?

Here are a few points to help you get a more clear picture with some specific motives and direction you may have.

1. Making them feel an emotion:

Three possible emotions the audience feels when faced with a rhetorical question.

You can use rhetorical questions to motivate, empower, anger, calm, frighten and even sadden the audience. Usually, they may have a mixture of feelings together.
A good example would be:

Original: They have done nothing for us.
Instead: What have they even done for us?

2. Emphasize on your point:

Highlighting the key points with rhetorical questions.
Businessman hand underlining the word key points on gray background. Highlighting the key points of an issue in business concept.

You can use rhetorical questions to force the audience to think about your point.

Original: 1 in 4 people have been subjected to a form of sexual assault.
Instead: 1 in 4 people have been subjected to a form of sexual assault. When are we going to do something about it?

(Please note that the above sentence is an example and not a researched fact.)

3. Prove something wrong:

Using a rhetorical question is a great way to contradict or prove something wrong or not applicable to your current audience.

Original: The phases of the moon do not determine the size of a T-Shirt.
Instead: The phases of the moon are helpful in tracking time, but do they determine the size of a T-Shirt? No. No, they do not.

4. Answering a predictable question:

Answering a predictable rhetorical question in public speaking.

Answering a question the audience may have by using it as a rhetorical question is a great way to be ahead of things and even pique their interest.

Original: Here is what you can do as a beginner in water coloring.
Instead: As a beginner, you might have this thought: Where do I even begin?
Well here is something that may work for you…

5. Answering an actual question:

A great way to answer a question, be it one that you have raised, or one that is coming from your audience, is to respond with a rhetorical question. Keep in mind that it is effective only when both the questions (the one you were asked, and the one you responded with) have the same answer. Usually it is a yes or no question. 

Original: Q: Is this article written by someone awesome? A: Yes, it is!
Q: Is this article written by someone awesome? A: Is the sky blue?

Is this article written by someone awesome? A: Is the reader an awesome person?

To help you gauge the areas where you can add rhetorical questions in your speech, here are a few examples from literature and other famous speeches:
(P. S. There are multiple examples of rhetorical questions throughout this article as well; you can give it another read and it might help you to understand where and how to use rhetorical questions in different contexts and topics.)

“Can anyone look at the record of this Administration and say, “Well done”?
Can anyone compare the state of our economy when the Carter Administration took office with where we are today and say, “Keep up the good work”?
Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today and say, “Let’s have four more years of this”?”

Ronald Reagan

“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Sojourner Truth

“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?”

Barack Obama

Mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure?

Julius Caesar By William Shakespeare

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 By William Shakespeare

6. Starting with a Rhetorical Question:

Starting your speech with a rhetorical question acts as a great conversation starter and gets the audience engaged immediately. It helps the audience connect with your topic and gets them thinking about it.

Original: The Climate Change Crisis is well known to everyone but no one is doing anything about it.
Instead: We all know about the Climate Change Crisis, but what are we doing about it?


Woman using rhetorical questions to add humour in their speech.

Now that you know how to go about giving a great speech and leaving the audience invested and engaged. Here are a three things which may help you take it to the next level:

1. Don’t overdo it.
2. A hint of sarcasm used correctly gives the perfect dose of humour. 
3. Make it seem effortless and natural. 

At the end of the day, your aim is to deliver a great speech, be it for a TedTalk or for your school debate club. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to be true to what you speak about and yourself. Deliver the speech in the manner which feels right to you and use all the tools at your disposal wherever you feel it fits, including rhetorical questions. An extra pair of ears never hurt nor does building yourself and exploring public speaking.

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