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Volume 19, Issue 2;   January 9, 2019: What Is Hypophora?

What Is Hypophora?

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Hypophora is a rhetorical device that enables its users to deliver simple messages with enhanced power. But it has a dark side. The people who read or hear those messages tend to assess them as having more merit than they do.
Publicity photo of American entertainer Bert Lahr, promoting his role as the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 feature film, @Cite{The Wizard of Oz.

Publicity photo of American entertainer, Bert Lahr (1895-1967), promoting his role as the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 feature film, The Wizard of Oz. In his opening song and dance, he utters the now famous hypophoras, "What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! // What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage!". Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Hypophora is a rhetorical device in which the writer — or more often, the speaker — poses a question and immediately provides an answer. The title of this post together with the sentence you just read is an example of a hypophora. The accent is on the second syllable; the plural is hypophoras. Hypophora is a powerful rhetorical device, best suited to communicating deeply emotional messages in soaring oratory. Today, it's widely overused, with potentially unpleasant consequences for speakers, writers, and their audiences, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Here's a famous example from a speech of Winston Churchill, delivered on 13 May 1940, about eight months after Britain entered the war, in the House of Commons:

"You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. This is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival."

Two examples of common uses of hypophora in the modern workplace:

  • Am I satisfied with our progress on this project? I am not.
  • Would I do it this way if I had to do it all over again? Absolutely.

Using this device to express such mundane ideas as these can convey an image of the user as a self-important blowhard.

But for important observations, especially those with emotional impact, hypophora can be a powerful tool. When presenting to groups large or small, a well-constructed hypophora can create a sense of dialog with each individual audience member. By posing a question that's already in the minds of the audience members, or a question that they readily recognize as relevant and important, the speaker deepens the connection with the audience. To enhance this effect, skilled speakers pause ever so briefly between the question and the answer. The pause gives audience members time to absorb the question, and whets their appetites for the answer. They are then more likely to agree with the speaker's answer and support its validity.

Using hypophora Using hypophora to express
mundane ideas can convey
an image of the user as a
self-important blowhard
can also create or strengthen an impression that the speaker is several steps ahead of the audience, especially if the question is one that hadn't occurred to the audience. That impression places the speaker more firmly in charge of the topic, and confirms the speaker in a position of thought leadership. Speakers who are skilled at projecting a confident demeanor can therefore gain even more control.

And hypophora has a dark side. All these techniques are available to advertisers, who use them to move their audiences to make the decisions the advertisers prefer. Try searching the Web for the phrase, "Are you ready for a" (with the quotes). At this writing, Google reports 54 million hits, which is respectable. Advertisers, including politicians, use questions in their leads to induce the audience to seek an answer to the question, which they're happy to provide.

Following the lead of advertisers, those who seek to influence others at work also use hypophora. To some extent it gives them an unfair advantage, because the power of their presentations interferes with the audience's ability to objectively assess the merits of the content of those presentations.

Not everyone who uses hypophora at work intends to gain unfair advantage. Most people who have adopted the technique, I believe, have done so because it has become fashionable, and because it feels powerful. While some do intend to achieve an unfair advantage for their views, many do not. Whatever the speaker's intentions might be, when you notice the use of hypophora, be alert. Your ability to judge objectively might be about to be challenged. Go to top Top  Next issue: Guidelines for Curmudgeon Teams  Next Issue

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