Public Speaking Success: When to Begin a Speech with a Rhetorical Question

How lucky are we to be here today at this great location? Is there anything better than getting a day off from work to come listen to a speech? Rhetorical questions (questions asked for effect rather than to get an actual answer) are great attention getting devices and can enhance a speech. But many speakers make the mistake of opening their speech with rhetorical questions as a means to grab attention right off the bad. This isn’t always the best idea, so here are some things to think about when considering opening up a speech with a rhetorical question.

Is the audience ready?

The most awkward moments of a speech for the both the speaker and the audience are typically the first few moments of a speech. This is because in most cases, the speaker hasn’t yet established rapport with the audience – the exceptions are when the speaker has addressed the audience before or the speaker is well known and liked by the audience.

Since that rapport has not been established yet, the audience may not know how to react to the question. The audience might be thinking “Is the speaker looking for an answer?” or “Am I supposed to do something or react?” This confusion can distract the audience and prevent them from warming up to you right away.

Even profound statements such as “is there any greater threat to us today than global warming?” or “will there ever be a stop to these increases in business taxes?” have the same problem. Some members of the audience may shout back an answer (and they may or may not share your view) while others look around to see how the people near them are reacting.

Are you ready?

Again, the first few moments of a speech can be an awkward time – even for an experienced speaker, but especially for neophyte speakers. So using a technique to start your speech that can result in an unexpected reaction from your audience (an actual answer, looks of confusion, etc…) can kill your momentum.

Unexpected elements can make a speech a fun, exciting and interesting presentation. But if you’re trying to gauge the audience, you may want to hold off until you’re comfortable with them before taking any risks.

Is the question appropriate for the audience?

This is a tricky one because many speakers don’t consider how the audience is feeling when they make statements such as “isn’t it great to be here?” or “is there anything better than being a salesperson at the XYZ Company?” It’s an unfortunate truth, but many people dislike listening to speech as much as they dislike giving a speech. So starting off with a blanket statement that sounds like they’re trying to patronize the audience will cause the speaker to instantly lose credibility and the interest of the audience.

Asking a rhetorical question requires making some assumptions about your audience. And depending on your question and how passionately members of the audience disagree with your position, a false assumption can quickly turn your audience hostile.

Is it even possible to start a speech with a rhetorical question?

Of course it is. Work the audience before the event if possible to learn the general mood and attitudes of the people who will be in your audience. Play it safe and stick with questions that won’t gt you in trouble – avoid bringing up touchy subjects such as politics, religion or sex.

So when you plan a presentation and are considering starting out with a rhetorical question, keep in mind that it might not always be a good idea and don’t forget to do your homework.

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  1. Pingback: Public Speaking Myths: There’s No Such Thing as a Dead Audience. | Overnight Sensation - Public Speaking, Communication and Personal Development

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