Article Category: Speechwriting

How to Use Rhetorical Questions in Your Speech

A rhetorical question is a common rhetorical device where a question is asked by a speaker, but no answer is expected from the audience. This distinguishes it from explicit verbal audience interaction where a speaker asks a question, and then waits for a response or calls on someone to answer it.

You are certainly aware of this technique, but are you aware that you can use a rhetorical question in at least nine different ways? No? Read on!

This article identifies nine ways to use rhetorical questions, and provides examples throughout.

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

Strategies when asking rhetorical questions

Like other speech techniques, rhetorical questions can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the needs of the speaker and the speech.

It is rarely necessary to ask a rhetorical question; there is nearly always another way to convey the same idea without using a question. But rhetorical questions, like other rhetorical devices, add variety and interest to a speech.

Here are nine strategies that can be fulfilled (often in combination) with a carefully crafted rhetorical question:

1. Engage the audience to think with a rhetorical question.

The most popular use of a rhetorical question is to engage your audience to think. If your entire speech is a series of statements, your audience may passively listen and absorb little. On the other hand, you can make them active participants in your speech by inviting them to think about your arguments. This is most effective if they are asked to think about an issue from a fresh perspective.

For example, suppose you are delivering a goal achievement seminar. While many people feel that external forces prevent them from realizing their goals, you might engage your audience to think about their self-defeating behaviors:

Setting goals is easy, but achieving them isn’t. How are you sabotaging yourself?

2. Invite your audience to agree with you by asking a rhetorical question.

To persuade your audience, they must see you as credible. One way to build credibility is to convince your audience that you are similar to them and share their beliefs. One way to do this is by asking a rhetorical question where the answer has the audience agreeing with you, perhaps even nodding their head in agreement.

For example, suppose you are speaking at a networking event for working mothers, and you represent a local health spa:

Given how hard you work — both at the office and at home — don’t you deserve a day at the spa?

[When your audience silently answers “Yes, I do deserve that”, the effect is that they see themselves as more similar to you.]

3. Stir emotions by asking a rhetorical question.

Effective speakers know how to stir audience emotions. Rhetorical questions do this by making the audience a partner in your emotional statements. Instead of delivering one-way emotional statements, you can involve your audience more emotionally by hooking them with a rhetorical question.

For example, suppose you are at a political rally. Instead of saying:

They’ve never done anything to help us.


What have they ever done to help us?

The latter version is stronger, because it triggers an emotional response by having the audience thinking “Nothing! They’ve done nothing!”

4. Emphasize a previous statement with a rhetorical question.

Rhetorical questions can be used as an exclamation point on a preceding statement. While the preceding statement may be a factual statement, a rhetorical question forces your audience to think hard about it.

For example, suppose you are speaking out against gang violence in your community:

17 of our sons and daughters have already died in gang-related crime. How many will it take before we act?

5. Invoke misdirection with a rhetorical question.

Careful use of misdirection in a speech is an effective way of generating audience surprise, and this results in them being active participants. One form of misdirection is when you make a statement which leads in one direction, and then follow it up with a statement that pulls in the opposite direction.

For example, suppose you are trying to motivate your sales department:

Financial analysts in our industry predict that sales are going to be down next year. But does that prediction apply to us? [… and then you go on to show why it does not…]

In the above example, the rhetorical question followed a contrasting statement. But this pattern can be reversed with the rhetorical question preceding a contrasting statement. For example:

Why would anyone care about the polling data, when it has proven to be inaccurate in the past? The primary reason is that polling firms have been using entirely different methods this time…

6. Ask and answer a rhetorical question your audience may be thinking.

Thorough audience analysis will reveal many questions that members of your audience may have. Rather than waiting to address these questions following your speech (e.g. in a Q&A session), you can address them in the body of your speech by asking the question and immediately answering it.

For example, imagine that you are speaking to a new parents’ support group:

As a new parent, you often wonder: What can I do to give my child an intellectual jump start? The answer is reading aloud to them every day.

Or, consider another example:

Why is it important to exercise our right to vote? Voting is a duty of active citizenship!

7. Answer a question with another rhetorical question.

A common technique to answer a question (either one you have raised, or one coming from your audience) is to respond with a rhetorical question. This is done when the two questions (the one you were asked, and the one you responded with) have the same answer (typically, either “yes” or “no”).

For example:

Will we win the contract? Is the sky blue?

The obvious answer to the second question is “yes”, and this implies the answer to the first is also “yes”.

Or, consider another example:

Do you think we should give up on our school and close it? Do pigs fly?

This time, the obvious answer to the second question is “no”, and this implies the answer to the first is also “no”.

Beware when using this technique as it can sound cliche to your audience. If you can, make the second question fresh and unique to your audience.

8. Ask a series of rhetorical questions to highlight divergent thoughts.

When speaking about a particularly complex issue, one technique that reinforces this complexity is to ask a series of questions which, if answered, would all point in different directions.

For example:

How can we stop bullying in school? Is the answer to educate the bullies? Or educate those being bullied? Do we need more supervision on playgrounds? How about stricter penalties for offenders? […]

A series of questions like this might be used in the opening of a speech, while the body of the speech might follow up on the individual questions one by one.

9. Ask a series of rhetorical questions to highlight convergent thoughts.

A series of rhetorical questions can also be used in situations where, if the questions were answered, all of the answers would point in the same direction. This technique is a variation on repetition and could be used to emphasize a point repeatedly.

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

For example:

Who has turned around our club and made it prosperous? Who is tireless in her devotion to this club? Who is our undisputed leader? Of course I am speaking of our club president Laurelle who we honor here today.

What do you think?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I really do want to hear what you think. Please add a comment to share your ideas about how to use rhetorical questions.

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Comments icon16 Comments

  1. Eugenia says:

    Thanks, Andrew, for this incredibly helpful article on using the rhetorical question. Already incorporated one of your suggestions in a speech I am writing.

  2. Saina Manoj says:

    This is really a set of useful tips. And all the articles coming in this series are useful and effective tips and inputs. Thank you for sharing all these valid points and eye openers.

  3. Craig Hadden says:

    Thanks Andrew – that’s a very thorough and thought-provoking look at rhetorical questions. I never realised there was so much to them!

    What do you think are the *limits* of their use, though? I ask because I once attended a talk where (to my mind) the speaker *overused* rhetorical questions. From a listener’s viewpoint, that felt frustrating because it was as though the speaker repeatedly asked for dialogue, only to move on without waiting for our answers. So the talk was a monologue just *masquerading* as dialogue.

    In what ways, then, might a presenter attempt to judge when they had the “right” number of rhetorical questions in their talk, compared with real questions or other techniques? I wonder if there should be at least as many real questions as rhetorical questions, to maintain balance. What do you think?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:


      I agree that rhetorical questions can be overused, but I don’t think one can give a general rule about what the “right” number or ratio is. It depends wildly on the purpose and nature of the presentation.

      For example, in his TED talk, Ken Robinson used rhetorical questions 26 times (as part of his personal speaking style), and doesn’t ask any questions where he expects a response from the audience.

  4. Craig Hadden says:

    It would be good if there was *some* guideline people could fall back on – if not mathematical, maybe something like “ask a couple of trusted colleagues their opinions about the rhetorical questions in your talk”. Or “keep only the rhetorical questions you’d use in a one-to-one conversation”. That second one sounds like a promising rule of thumb, but I’ll continue to think about a guideline that might work.
    Thanks for the Ken Robinson link – it’s really useful to consider a real example like that. Like you, the 1st time I watched Ken’s talk, I didn’t really notice all the rhetorical questions. But now I’m aware of them, they’re quite obtrusive, which to me rings alarm bells. So *if* he uses them as part of his regular style, I think someone who listened to a couple of his talks would quickly start to be distracted by them. Also, such wide use lessens their power.
    Anyway, thanks again for sparking this line of thought on a useful speech technique. I’m a lot more aware of the uses for rhetorical questions now!

  5. Dale Klein says:

    Extremely good points and well-articulated. The use of the rhetorical question is far more powerful than most speakers realize so your article gives excellent advice.

  6. Pamela says:

    from Paris, France

    Andrew —

    You have a GREAT site which I just found.

    I preparing a contest speech at Toastmasters in Paris and was looking for some writing advice – and found your wonderful site.
    Keep up the good work.


  7. sheena says:

    if you ask a topic question and you prepared for the answer in speech way , it will be consider it a question and answer?
    like they did in pageant. they already a topic question and they prepared a answered in speech formed.

  8. Gregory O Kane says:

    Very helpful! I’m strategically commencing a defence for gross misconduct for an employee and this will be a unique and suprising approach. My thought is to ask initially if the employee is guilty and then answer that he is but not guilty because…….here, I will commence my mitigating evidence. I will try to introduce other rhetoricals throughout…..very good, thanks!

  9. Henry says:

    Thank you for your help Andrew, but I have a question. If I am trying to write a persuasive speech, which one of these methods should I use? I looked through them all and found that all of them were really interesting and intriguing. Please answer soon.

    With great thanks,

  10. Kaylene says:

    The things which you have share about is really interesting and useful.

  11. Edna Oliveros says:

    It is a great tool. Thanks for doing it.

  12. Jeff says:

    I’m not sure if this is another category or fits in with one of the 9 mentioned, but I use rhetorical questions to force a point.

    “So Johny has a key to the house. he regularly takes food from the kitchen. He’s been a bully at school. The principle has had him in his office because he’s threatening people.

    And you think it’s not reasonable that he stole money off the counter?”

  13. Satish Gupta says:

    What is answer of “that is good for the customer”(make it a rhetorical question)help me to understand

  14. Skyler says:

    Thank you we looked through this in our classroom in our high school.

  15. Katelyn says:

    Do you happen to have any info on how to write one for a photography paper?

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