March 14, 2023

Engage the Audience: Making Rhetorical Questions Work

Public Speaking , Presentation Tips , Rhetorical Devices


Perhaps the most common use of 'rhetorical' today is found in conjunction with 'question.' A rhetorical question is not a question about the art of speaking effectively; it is a question that is asked for effect, rather than from a desire to know the answer. 'Would it kill you to stop chewing your food with your mouth open?' is a rhetorical question.

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Why use a rhetorical question when you present?

Of course, there's the dramatic or comedic punch it can bring. But in many business presentations, this technique is a simple yet effective way to get the audience involved.

No, you don't expect them to shout out the answer. But when you ask before providing the information, you're prodding your audience to think. And if the answer you ultimately provide is different from theirs, you might be prodding them to think even more.

While asking a question can be a good idea, the quality of the question matters. And that's a challenge sometimes for speakers we're coaching. The first question they think of might not be the one that helps them reach their goal.

Here are a few tips for getting better rhetorical questions out there in your next presentation:

Try using an open-ended question.

An open-ended question invites any number of answers. A closed-ended yes-or-no question can stop that flow of thought. For example, instead of asking, "Have you ever wanted to buy your own home?" you might reframe that as an open-ended question: "What would happen if you owned your home instead of renting?"

With the first question, some in your audience might answer no. If they do, they're essentially done with your topic. They've opted out.

The second question invites consideration, even if owning a home isn't on a person's list of immediate goals. They might imagine more weekend lawn mowing or less money for shoes, but at least they're considering your topic.

Of course, some closed-ended questions can provoke thought. Educator Peter Worley calls these grammatically closed but conceptually open questions. 

For example, asking "Should we do more to support Ukraine?" or "Is it ever right to lie?" isn’t going to shut down consideration or discussion. And you, of course, can use that question as a springboard to introduce a challenging issue.

Push past questions with obvious answers.

Who here wants to make more money? This is a question we hear a lot in sales presentations.

Its purpose is to appeal to audience interest. While we applaud the motive, we're not so sure you're quite getting there. The answer is too obvious. And for the skeptics in the room, it invites a cynical "not me." 

Go with a shorter question.

We are always touting the virtues of short sentences for speeches. When using a quote, we urge you to keep that short, too. Rhetorical questions tend to work better when they’re short.

For example, instead of asking:

With climate change bringing more flooding, increased severe weather, and rising temperatures, how can architects use design to mitigate these impacts and at the same time reduce our impact on the environment and help reverse global warming?

Make it simple with something like:

How can design help us cope with climate change?

Or if you want to keep more of the original text, try two questions:

How can design help us cope with climate change? What role can we as architects play in reversing global warming?

Pause after you ask.

No matter how you wind up structuring your rhetorical question, pause after you pose it.


So the audience has a moment to think of their own answers before you deliver yours. Remember, one the advantages to asking is that you are engaging the audience, changing the dynamic, asking them to generate ideas not just passively receive your information. If you'll pause, you get the most out of the opportunity.

Learn more:

For more on the ins and outs of getting an audience involved, take a look at this

For more of our thoughts on how to make the most of rhetorical questions, go here.

Using questions to facilitate a discussion? Here's how that’s a little different and what you can do

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