By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
One theme that long-time readers of this blog will recognize is that persuasion is essentially self-persuasion. Rather than accepting what I call the "consumer model" of persuasion, in which an advocate presents a fully-formed position to an audience who either "buys" it or doesn't, I see persuasion as an act that requires participation from your target audience. People investigate their own solution. That investigation can be informed, framed, nudged, and influenced in a thousand ways but, ultimately, the route to your preferred outcome will be a route chosen by your audience, and not one that is simply dictated. Given that process of engagement, and given that role of choice, it also turns out that your audience's "self-talk" matters. How do they talk their way to a solution? It turns out that small differences in self-talk matter, and the use of rhetorical questions (like the one in the previous sentence) helps to motivate and engage an audience. A recent post in Psyblog highlights a research study (Senay, Albarracin, & Noguchi, 2010) that nicely demonstrates that effect. The research team, psychologists from the University of Illinois, asked participants to either question themselves ("Will I...") or make affirmations ("I will...") prior to completing a challenging task, and it turns out that the question is the more effective motivator. According to one author, Professor Dolores Albarracin, “The popular idea is that self-affirmations enhance people’s ability to meet their goals. It seems, however, that when it comes to performing a specific behavior, asking questions is a more promising way of achieving your objectives.”
While the study did not focus on a speaker's technique of asking a rhetorical question during a presentation, I think the research bears on the utility of framing a position using questions. The study suggests that these questions are an important part of motivation, and provides a reason to build them into a presentation. By asking, "Did the product cause this injury?" and then leading the audience through the answer, you are building in more activity and engagement for the audience than you would have if you had simply argued, "The product caused the injury" and then provided the reasons why. The first approach makes the audience active investigators while the second just makes them passive recipients. In this post, I will take a quick look at the reasons rhetorical questions work, and then share some thoughts on using them in opening statement and oral argument.