Ask a Question
Starting a speech with a question is a common attention getter, but in reality many of the questions that I have heard start a speech are not very attention getting. It’s important to note that just because you use one of these strategies, that doesn’t make it automatically appealing to an audience. A question can be mundane and boring just like a statistic, quotation, or story can.
A rhetorical question is different from a direct question. When a speaker asks a direct question, they actually want a response from their audience. A rhetorical question is designed to elicit a mental response from the audience, not a verbal or nonverbal one. In short, a rhetorical question makes an audience think. Asking a direct question of your audience is warranted only if the speaker plans on doing something with the information they get from the audience. I can’t recall a time in which a student asked a direct question to start their speech and did anything with that information. Let’s say a student starts the speech with the direct question “By a show of hands, how many people have taken public transportation in the past week?” and sixteen out of twenty students raise their hands. If the speaker is arguing that more students should use public transportation and she expected fewer students to raise their hands, is she going to change her speech angle on the spot? Since most speakers move on from their direct question without addressing the response they got from the audience, they have not made their attention getter relevant to their topic. So, if you use a direct question, make sure you have a point to it and some way to incorporate the responses into the speech.
A safer bet is to ask a rhetorical question that elicits only a mental response. A good rhetorical question can get the audience primed to think about the content of the speech. When asked as a series of questions and combined with startling statistics or facts, this strategy can create suspense and hook an audience. The following is a series of rhetorical questions used in a speech against the testing of cosmetics on animals: “Was the toxicity of the shampoo you used this morning tested on the eyes of rabbits? Would you let someone put a cosmetic in your dog’s eye to test its toxicity level? Have you ever thought about how many products that you use every day are tested on animals?” Make sure you pause after your rhetorical question to give the audience time to think. Don’t pause for too long, though, or an audience member may get restless and think that you’re waiting for an actual response and blurt out what he or she was thinking.