Public Speaking Through the Ages (Part 1)

Published on 05.20.2021

history of public speaking

Follow Winning Feathers’ blogger Allison Hartzler as she takes us through a two-part short history of public speaking through the ages. This part focuses mostly on Ancient Greece and their form of public speaking called “rhetoric.”

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The ancient Greeks have left us many wonderful ideas which we can find in the fabric of the  modern day. Take the Olympics, for example. Originally, athletes were restricted to men, and performed naked  Luckily we have adapted them to include clothes, women, and ping pong, but back in the day this was a completely new and exciting concept men rallied behind.

Furthermore, our most famous philosophers have come from Greece. Aristotle, Pluto, and Socrates are just a few ancient, but recognizable Greek philosophers that have contributed to the foundation of thought for modern thinkers.

What might be surprising, however, is that the origins of public speaking derives from ancient Greece. Back then, they referred to this as “rhetoric.” According to Aristotle, rhetoric is “the faculty of discovering in the particular case all the available means of persuasion,” A.K.A, the art of speaking persuasively

Due to the importance placed on political values and ideas, public speaking was highly valued and, to a degree, required (obviously upper-class men only). A man who could speak clearly, efficiently, and articulate well had much more power to convene with the wealthy and gain a profitable social life. Nonetheless, this practice was not only giving democracy the push it needed, but also quickly turning into an artform. 

Popular Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Quintilian, were one of the first to latch onto this new artform and give it structure and rules. Quintilian’s reference books on rhetoric are still referenced by today’s politicians. He defined a good public speaker as “a good man speaking well.” Of course, back then a good woman speaking well — using emotional appeals and forceful arguments to win over a crowd — was often labeled hysteria.

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Before moving on from our Ancient Greek ancestors, we need to take a look back at the idea of persuasion and the role that played for modern day public speaking. Aristotle understood public speaking as not just a way to push political agendas forward, but as a means to bring people together. Specifically, he was interested in three ways to appeal to people: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

These components were well-known to philosophers and speakers who looked to Aristotle as an expert in his own time. Ethos is used to show credibility. Is the speaker reliable? Do they hold authority over the content? Logos are used to show the logic behind the argument. Are the facts sound? Can all the dots be connected? Pathos is used to draw on the audience’s emotions. Are they personally connected to the subject? Can they be tied back to the original content? 

Sometime in the 4th century BCE, Aristotle wrote his famous text On Rhetoric. This was largely considered the first textbook in rhetoric and public speaking. Following this, boys were sent off at age fourteen to study rhetoric. This became especially important for those who were studying to become sophists. 

Sophists were teachers of philosophy or rhetoric in Ancient Greece. In the sense that they offered their services in exchanges for fees, you could say they were professional intellectuals. Most of them focused on a specific subject that could range from a sect of philosophy to music or even sports. However if there was one thing these travelling thinkers had in common, it was their ability to use speech and rhetoric to captivate their audience. 

After a while, these speakers began having a large hand in political movements and created a reputation for manipulating truths and influencing their fellow Athenians to rally behind whomever offered them the most money. In fact, this is where we get the word sophistry, or what we call a “deliberate use of a false argument with the intent to trick someone.”

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While we may not stand in public squares and give speeches on justice and change as we used to (well, except maybe in San Francisco), public speaking is still crucial in today’s climate.

A new study suggests that 70 percent of all jobs require some form of public speaking. In fact, according to this study, “oral communication” was the #1 skill employers look for when hiring. Further, 70 percent of employees themselves agree public speaking was critical for their job. They say employers always look for those with speaking skills, making these people much more valuable as potential employers. 

As we approach a new age geared more towards screens and virtual meetings, is the art of public speaking going to change? Will the skills involved need to adapt and fit with the ages?

Next week, we will dive into public speaking in the modern age and how these skills adapt and conform with the needs of today, as well as how the foundations of public speaking have remained the same, and probably always will.

Public Speaking Through the Ages (Part 1)

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