Because rhetoric is a public art capable of shaping opinion, some of the ancients including Plato found fault in it. They claimed that while it could be used to improve civic life, it could be used equally easily to deceive or manipulate with negative effects on the city. The masses were incapable of analyzing or deciding anything on their own and would therefore be swayed by the most persuasive speeches. Thus, civic life could be controlled by the one who could deliver the best speech. Plato explores the problematic moral status of rhetoric twice: in Gorgias , a dialogue named for the famed Sophist, and in The Phaedrus , a dialogue best known for its commentary on love. This concern is still maintained to nowadays.
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!