What happens in your mind when I ask you a question?
You NEED to answer it, don’t you?
You immediately think of your response. Even if that response is just, “
Even if that response is, “WTF? Why are you asking me this? I don’t knowwww!” you’re still thinking it.
It’s how we’re conditioned. We can’t help it. Because we don’t want people to think we’re rude.
Some say it’s societal conditioning, and some say it’s instinctual… drawing on the idea that humans are made to exist in groups helping each other rather than in islands of loneliness.
Whether or not this thrust towards answering a question we’re asked is conditioned or instinctual isn’t really the question here.
The question is….
Now that you know humans can’t not answer questions, how you gonna use it to write better copy?
Maybe taking a look at the psychological reasons why rhetorical questions are so powerful will give you some ideas…
Why it Works: Rhetorical Questions Create Open Loops
There’s this really interesting thing called neurolinguistic programming where psychologists study the effects of language on the mind.
It’s fascinating overall, but especially when it comes to rhetorical questions.
Because when you ask someone a rhetorical question, it creates an open loop in their mind.
And since the mind likes to make connections and feel smart, it looks for a way to close that loop and find the answer. And if it doesn’t know the answer, it frantically searches for it like a junkie desperate for his next fix.
And you know what? Sometimes you don’t even have to use an actual question to get these open loops running. Sometimes, a simple suggestion of a problem is all it takes.
Movie writers are geniuses at this. They know how to keep us interested and watching.
For example, I just watched the movie The Intern with Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro.
In the beginning of the movie, Anne’s character got frustrated by an overly-messy desk in the center of the office and kept swearing she was going to do something about it. She never did, until one day she was pleasantly surprised to find Robert’s character had organized it for her… warming her cold character up to him.
And while this was a small open loop and rather insignificant to the film’s outcome, it was an important part in the establishment of their relationship, which the entire film revolved around.
So when your brain hears something mentioned in relation to something it’s curious about (whether in question form or not), it expects that thing to be addressed later on so it can make those important connections it’s after.
And if that thing that was mentioned never gets addressed? Especially if that thing is a question?
Your brain doesn’t get the closure it’s after and it keeps looking for something to close that open loop.
And this, my friends, this is one of the greatest secrets of engaging copywriting.
Your headline might be a question. You might introduce a question in your blog post’s introduction. Or you could simply imply that you know something you know your target reader is desperate to know and be “in” on.
And you know what?
It’ll set off something in their brain that simply needs to know more. And they’ll keep reading.
“Many headlines hook the reader by starting an intriguing thought—and implicitly promising to close the loop in the article or post itself,” said Jeff Sexton on Copyblogger.
See what I mean?
You just need to know what this kid does, don’t you?
Rhetorical Questions Act as Statements You Can Use to Gain Your Readers’ Favor
Literally one of the oldest tricks in the book, Aristotle said this in The Art of Rhetoric:
“Another good moment is when one premise is obviously true, and you can see that your opponent must say ‘yes’ if you ask him whether the other is true. Having first got the answer about the other, do not go on to ask him about the obviously true one, but just state the conclusion yourself.”
ARISTOTLE. The dude born in 384 BC with hobbies like metaphysics, government, philosophy, and theatre—and who would be 2,400 years old if here were still alive today. That’s older than Jesus, people.
“Rhetorical questions are often intended to make the listener agree with the speaker as the answer is obviously yes,” says Changing Minds. “Even if the listener does not say the word, they will think it. And once they start agreeing they are more likely to keep doing so.”
The key behind this point is when you use a rhetorical question to create an open loop the brain can easily close by saying “YES” to, you’re building momentum with your readers to get and keep their agreement in your favor while making the stuff you’re writing feel more like a conversation and not like they’re getting preached at by a smarmy sales rep.
Because none of us like to be preached at.
It’s a humorous example, but you get it.
The Zeigarnik Effect: Open Loops > Closed Loops
An extension of neurolinguistic programming’s labeling of open and closed loops, the Zeigarnik Effect takes it one step further to say that open loops are more interesting and compelling than loops that are open and then immediately closed.
It was discovered by a Russian psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik who noticed that waiters only remembered a table’s orders while they were still in the process of the food being prepared and served.
Once the food was served, they forgot it.
She also noticed how the things our brains haven’t achieved closure on keep popping up in our minds.
Like when a client pisses you off right before the weekend.
Or when a family member makes some underhanded comment about your relationship status and you don’t get the chance to verbally chastise them with a “friendly” yet insanely feminist equality-based statement that no one in their right mind would argue with.
That kind of stuff sticks in your mind for days, doesn’t it?
A loop was opened, and no matter what you do, you can’t freaking close the damn thing so you keep thinking about it until you can close it.
And if you’ve got a few extra minutes, this post does a BEAUTIFUL job of opening a loop, keeping you interested, and getting you to read until the very end when that loop is closed.
Where Are You Adding Your Rhetorical Questions?
On your landing page? In your calls to action? In the introductions of your blog posts?
(Is this too much? 😉 )
The idea is (as you can see in this post alone) that adding rhetorical questions into your writing is really easy and really effective.
It’s not a slimy trick, and you’re not pulling anything over on your readers. You’re just purposefully getting their attention that could otherwise be very easily lost in a very, very crowded internet.