AKA A statement is stronger than a question.
The Scottie Blog original series, From the Department of Free Advice, draws from my decade of working in communications as a political staffer and consultant. I'm sharing some of the best advice I've learned along the way. Check out the first installment in the series, "Put it in Writing."
When writing for clients or candidates, I'm typically trying to get a message through the media to the public. It isn't creative writing or literature. It is press releases, blog posts, and op-eds–things that fight to be seen and paid attention to.
A wonderful boss of mine used to tear my writing to shreds. Honestly, it was the kind thing for her to do. She was a veteran professional writer and always right. I learned a lot from that red pen.
One writing crutch that boss particularly hated was rhetorical questions.
She ruthlessly stripped them out. After she alerted me to it, I realized out how weak they sound–especially if I needed to write a powerful quote.
Recall the possibly corrupt scientist from my last blog, because we're paying his story another visit. If you need a refresher, the scientist conducted a study on why soda doesn't cause obesity. He was challenged by the New York Times on why he hadn't disclosed that Coca-Cola funded his study. His response to the Times ended with:
"Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?"
When talking to a print reporter, you have to think about how your quote is going to appear in print. Just like how some jokes work in person, but don't work in a text message. Print is devoid of tone of voice. Print doesn't know you're exasperated or being sarcastic. Print is cruel like that.
But having the opportunity to be in print is a gift. You have to be very economical with your words if you're going to be quoted in a story.
a rhetorical question is an ineffective use of the space you were given to communicate your point of view.
Rhetorical questions in print are unproductive, but I also suggest you try to avoid them if you're talking to broadcast reporters.
Typically in an interview, hosts or reporters are asking the questions, and your job is to answer. Don't answer a question with another question. It isn't the audience's job to divine what you mean.
On TV or radio you are only getting a few seconds of air time to state your case: spit it out.
And if you need one more nudge to kill this bad habit, read this Harvard Business Review blog on why rhetorical questions can make you sound like a jerk as a manager and stifle your team.
Case closed. I think we can safely wrap up this lesson from the Department of Free Advice, and I promise to stop harping on the scientist in future posts.
After my first blog post, I heard from a few reporters who didn't entirely disagree with my advice, but had some of their own points they wanted to share. I offered that they could write a guest post, but no one has taken me up on the offer. Yet. At a minimum, I will use this forum to pass along their (good) advice and answer questions. Tweet your compliments, complaints and questions at me, @abigailgardner and I might use the blog to respond. Cheers!