Brian Patton’s question took us all by surprise. It was not the preamble we were expecting from the seasoned Toastmaster, but as Brian continued with his speech, it quickly became apparent just how effective that initial question really was.
That is the power of a rhetorical question.
Often asked for effect, a rhetorical question can emphasizes a point, present a challenge or serve as a call to action. Brian’s question immediately engaged all of us and forced us to actively listen instead of passively sitting back and absorbing very little.
Some well-known rhetorical questions include…
“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?” (H.L. Mencken)
“Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everyone did?” (1960s television advertisement)
“If practice makes perfect, and no one’s perfect, then why practice?” (Billy Corgan)
On the lighter side (From House M.D.)
Dr. Cameron: Why did you hire me?
Dr. House: Does it matter?
Dr. Cameron: Kind of hard to work for a guy who doesn’t respect you.
Dr. House: Why?
Dr. Cameron: Is that rhetorical?
Dr. House: No, it just seems that way because you can’t think of an answer.
While crafting rhetorical questions can be challenging, toastmasters and writers should not shy away from this effective literary device. Consider the following tips:
1. Use these questions sparingly. If you have too many rhetorical questions in a speech, you can overwhelm and confuse the listener. One well-worded question in the introduction will give the audience members enough time to digest the information that follows.
2. Provide the answer to the question. While the question isn’t meant to be answered by the audience, it should be answered by the toastmaster who follows up with relevant material.
3. Hook the audience with a rhetorical question instead of an emotionally charged statement. For example, if you are trying to rally support for an anti-bullying campaign, you could ask: “How many more children must be bullied before we take action?”