To Use or Not to Use Rhetorical Questions?
Whether in copywriting or content writing, questions can help audiences interact with what they read. After all, that’s why people read, to interact and resonate with words, not just for the sake of reading.
So, asking questions would typically allow you to engage with your readers, keep them on the page, lure them into reading your next sentence, and the next one, and so on. But do all these apply to rhetorical questions as well?
Some people find them a sign of lazy writing and reject them because they’re not bringing real value, wasting the reader’s time.
Others, on the contrary, see them as a way of making texts more conversational and allowing the reader to identify himself with the topic, thus wanting to read more.
To use or not to use rhetorical questions, that’s the question!
Here’s why you might want to avoid rhetorical questions:
Lazy, patronizing, too commercial, and even with the potential of making the reader scroll away — these are just a few labels we can attach to rhetorical questions.
What’s the point in asking a question that doesn’t expect an answer? Especially if you’re using it as a means to connect two ideas, one might argue that there are always better ways to improve your writing while giving value to the reader.
You want your readers to slide on your text rather than jump around. But they don’t owe you this, so you’ll have to work hard to keep them in the attention trance, making every word count.
Rhetorical questions can make some fragments seem like they are not worth the reader’s time, making him lose interest in whatever you have to say next.
Those who use rhetorical questions typically formulate them to imply a positive answer that goes without saying. Nevertheless, each reader comes with his emotional luggage, and your question could trigger a “heck, no” response in his mind, rather than the “yes” you were hoping for.
“Now, wouldn’t you like to know more?” — at this stage, the reader could turn your back once the “no” popped in his head. It could be because your question is perceived as too commercial or even a bit condescending.
Of course, you don’t want to sound patronizing, but some rhetorical questions have the opposite power of what you think of them. Every time you use one, you must also use your best judgment and, by assessing your reader’s profile and all the emotional implications, determine whether your question pulls the reader in or kicks him out of your page.
And here’s why everyone from the apostles in the Bible to Barack Obama uses rhetorical questions
Judging by all the cons from above, it’s evident that rhetorical questions come with many risks and are never a necessity. But you can still use them in many different ways, and if you do it right, you have the chance to:
- Engage your audience;
- Influence and persuade your readers;
- Emphasize or subtly draw attention to specific ideas;
- Have a different approach to introducing ideas or topics in your texts.
Posing rhetorical questions is conversational, which means it helps you write the way you talk. It doesn’t just make your copy or article flow more naturally and feel alive, being more persuading, but also allows you to build rapport with your readers and develop a sense of connection.
What’s more, rhetorical questions appeal to the brain’s need to make sense of everything it interprets, make connections, and come up with answers. Anytime we hear a question, our brains can’t help but seek answers, which creates an open loop into our minds. This loop will only close once you come up with an answer, no matter how smart or silly that answer would be.
From this perspective, rhetorical questions, which are often formulated so that their answer is an obvious yes, will trick readers into agreeing with the writer, potentially making them stay longer on the page.
Making someone tell you “yes” while reading a rhetorical question in your text can be a powerful tool because:
- Whenever readers meet a question, they automatically formulate an answer. Even if that answer is only in their heads, the effect is just the same — an agreement they merely thought of will make their brains act as if they’ve already agreed verbally.
- Once your readers start to agree with what you say, you have higher chances for them to keep doing so — again, it’s a brain’s attribute to be consistent with an attitude it already embraced.
How you can ditch the rhetorical questions and polish your writing in the process
Regardless of why you’d want to eliminate such questions, if you think of what made you use them in the first place, you could come up with some easy ways to edit your text.
You can use such questions as a framework for your content without actually writing them in the text. Rather than asking the reader, “Why would this be beneficial to you…?” you can change the text into “Below, I’ll give you x reasons why this is beneficial to you.”.
Alternatively, you could write your draft as you see fit and then make the first round of edits to remove all rhetorical questions. You either delete them with no remorse or turn them into statements, like in the example above.
Don’t feel bad about it, but rather work your writing chops in the same way you do when you remove adverbs or passive voice.
You can’t help but use rhetorical questions, can you?
If you can’t write without it, you better learn a few strategies to make the most of it.
Use them for engagement — if you have to choose, put your rhetorical question in the introduction, the part that will make the reader decide there’s something they want to read next.
Pick questions that imply a “yes” — as already suggested, when you make your readers say or think of a “yes” answer, you have more chances for them to keep saying yes to other suggestions you’ll be driving along with the text.
Make them personal — help readers feel as if you’re personally addressing every single one of them. Instead of “Who wants to feel anything but energized every single day?” say, “Don’t you want to feel energized every single day?”.
Make them stir an emotion — rather than formulating your question to suggest a simple no — “Did you ever feel that your self-doubt brought you anything good?” — you could reframe it into “What did self-doubt ever help you achieve?”. The latter is more compelling because it will generate an emotional response, making you think, “didn’t help me achieve anything!”.
Answer your rhetorical question with another one — but always make sure that the second rhetorical question truly stands out, to avoid sounding cheesy — “Do you want to feel good about your body? Is the Earth round?”
Use a lot more than two rhetorical questions — that’s right, if you’re trying to make a point, make it big, with multiple rhetorical questions that will exponentially increase your readers’ beliefs — “Don’t these children look so happy? Isn’t this what you want for your child too? Is there anything you wouldn’t do to help them be so happy? Wouldn’t you love to know that connecting with them and making them thrive with joy is not that hard? Let me show you how to do it…”
Still, it’s not for you to decide if rhetorical questions are effective
Don’t cast any stones at me just yet. I’m trying to say that what matters is if the strategy is effective and your target audience responds to it. This is how you should choose your writing style in any context.
Some people intentionally ignore grammar rules because it makes their writing too fancy or too academic. You have to know your audience and the writing style that best resonates with it. If your readers respond well to rhetoric questions, you might as well ignore the entire above. However, it is worth doing the exercise of polishing your writing to remove rhetorical questions and see where it leads you!
Maybe your client can give you a style guide that addresses the issue of rhetorical questions as well. Or perhaps you’ll have to do some testing and see what seems to work better.
In any case, you should always do your best to know what works for the people you write for. Speaking of which, while you might think you’re writing for your client, you’re writing for their clients! And if you’re ever in doubt about using a rhetorical question in a specific context, follow your gut and leave it out.