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Background of Public Speaking



Historical Perspective

          The recognition and study of public speaking is considered to be one of the oldest areas of study in the field of communications. In fact, the study of public speaking has been around at least since the early Greeks. According to, Corax of Syracuse (5th century BCE) was believed to have written the first Greek treatise on rhetoric. Furthermore, he is regarded as being the first to recognize the need and importance of having an introduction, a body, and a conclusion in a speech. 

          The rise of rhetoric, oration, and in turn, “public” speaking, really took off around 450 BCE in Greece with speaking to persuade as its foundation. The Greeks used an oral tradition for conveying messages to persuade and inform citizens. Prior to this time, it was common that only the well-educated had access to the knowledge, skills, and power of public speaking. In speaking for themselves, the aristocracy was able to appear before legislatures and courts to voice their opinions and arguments, to support their positions, and to attain their basic needs. This was the foundation and support of the continuing formation of democracy in the Greek government. The recognition of their “voice” being able to play a role in society began an early calling for the study of public speaking and oration. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his classic book The Rhetoric (333 BCE), began looking at the art of persuasion using three proofs or appeals: ethos (character through being believable or credible), pathos (using emotions), and logos (use of logic).

Ethos is the "proof" or quality of being believable, credible, ethical, or of having character.

Initial Credibility is gained through prior knowledge, experiences, or reputation.

Derived Credibility is the ability to be believable by what you say and how you say it as you speak.

Terminal Credibility is the impression or perception you leave after you are done speaking.


          Ethos is the “proof” or quality of being believable, credible, ethical, or of having character. Ethos rests with the audience’s perception of you as a speaker and a source of valid information. There are 3 “types” or areas where credibility or ethos can be developed, initial credibility, derived credibility, and terminal credibility.

  • Initial credibility through prior knowledge, experiences, or reputation establishes your credibility as a speaker as you begin the speech.

    • Example: Your audience may have heard you speak before and due to the eminence of your speech, you may therefore have high initial credibility. On the other hand, your reputation as a mediocre speaker precedes you, and your audience is skeptical of your upcoming speech.

  • Derived credibility is the ability to be believable by what you say and how you say it as you speak.

    • Example: It may be established through your physical presence, your evidence, your arguments, your support, your use of appeals (if included), your vocal aspects, and if you practiced/rehearsed your speech well. All these elements tie into the perception held by the audience of your abilities as a speaker.

  • Terminal credibility is the impression or perception you leave after you are done speaking; it’s the final impact you make with your audience.

    • Example: Did you tie up the speech for your audience? Did you leave them wanting to hear more about your topic? Do they want to listen to you speak again?

          Credibility varies from situation to situation, speech to speech. Of course, you would like to maintain high credibility all the time, but it is virtually impossible to do so every time. Not all your speeches will be brilliant or incredibly successful, and this will influence the rising or falling of your credibility. Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you don’t do well on a particular speech, you will have many opportunities to increase your credibility throughout your speaking career.


          In his book The Rhetoric, Aristotle stated the sources of ethos are:

  • Intelligence: Show (or prove) to your audience your intelligence through reasoning and logical thinking.

    • Example: You have researched your topic thoroughly; you are using the most current pieces of information; your arguments are sound and tailored to your audience.

  • Character: Show (or prove) you are a fine, upstanding person, worthy of belief based on your past actions and statements.

    • Example: The associations you belong to, how you treat other individuals, your moral fiber as seen by others (perception) may determine if an audience will believe you when you speak. You are an ethical person.

  • Goodwill: Show (or prove) you have the best interest of the audience at heart by giving them the ability to be better off after you speak.

    • Example: In a speech about lifestyle, you discuss the ways we can all eat healthier and provide ways we can change our eating habits to improve our physical life.


Note: The Machiavellian principle from the 1500s, using sneaky underhanded ways to gain acceptance or acknowledgement, suggests a low moral character and may not lead to the best credibility for you as a speaker. You must ask yourself “do the ends justify the means”? Showing Aristotelian traditions of ethos may serve you better as you progress as a speaker and citizen.


          In contemporary times, sources for credibility build upon Aristotle’s three areas to provide a wider explanation of ethos by breaking them down into five categories or areas. They may be viewed as an updating of terminology for a modern society:

  • Competence: Show you are a valid source of ideas and information (intelligence).

  • Trustworthiness: Show you are someone they can trust, or earn their trust and show you have their best interests at heart (character).

  • Similarity: You want to look for similarities between you and the audience. We tend to want to do things for/with people who share the same interests, hobbies, thinking patterns, or groups we belong to. Often speakers want to convey they are “like” the audience (that we are all the same) by sharing the same background, experiences, situations, values, or belief systems. However, it is important to remember we are not all alike—we each have our own frames of reference determining our perceptions by which we evaluate information to determine its validity for us.

  • Attraction: We move toward people we think are attractive as we “value” their opinion and behavior more because we like how they look or act. Just like the damp sponge, like items attract like items—the same can be said for people. Do I like what you say?... How you look?... The clothes you are wearing? Peer pressure is a result of this desire to connect with people or thoughts we find pleasing.

  • Sincerity: As with goodwill, we must exhibit the audience’s best interests in our arguments, solution/plan, evidence, or reasoning.

Our credibility is dynamic and fluid, dependent on situation/context, what you do, or how the audience perceives you. Credibility changes constantly. Never fear though, you can increase your credibility by doing things differently.

Pathos is an emotional appeal targeting how your audience "feels."


          Pathos is the emotional “proof” or appeal your audience “feels” because humans are emotional beings. To connect with your audience on a baser level, you must tap into and relate to these emotions. They may be visible, invisible, or even unknown to the person. By addressing emotions, you can help your audience see or feel their possible resistance to change and the effect it has on them. Examples of these “feelings or emotions” are love, joy, anger, kindness, angst, hatred, jealousy, fear, and many more.


Brainstorm as many emotions as you can "see" or "feel." Write down what emotions you think your audience brings to the situation about different topics. When preparing your speeches, think back to this list as items you can tap into. 

          When working with pathos in your speeches, denotative language may be more effective for drawing up feelings from within your audience as they have more specific and concrete meanings, allowing for less interpretation. Denotative language helps to build images in their heads. Connotative words may not be as effective as they may have their own personal meanings to the audience. Connotative meanings are the emotions you want to support and bring out in your audience.


          Pathos taps into these factors (not inclusive of all): success, wisdom, security, health, status, fear, economy, strength, idealism, curiosity, pleasure, pride, affection, competition, cooperation, conformity, adventure, achievement, respect for deity (a higher power), protection, superiority, recognition, acquisition, fellowship, love of family, and/or social approval (peer pressure).


Logos is the use of logic and reasoning to support your hypothesis or argument.

Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that focused on reason and individuals rather than tradition. 

Humanism was a cultural movement focusing on human needs, values, and thoughts.

Rationalism is a belief that opinions should be based on reason and knowledge.

          Logos is the use of logic and reasoning to support your hypothesis or argument. It is your “logical proof.” When using logic and reasoning, you need to substantiate your claims by showing and citing credible evidence you found through research.

          With the movement of the Roman Empire across the European continent, rhetoric, oration, and public speaking changed. As the Romans ascended to power, they didn’t let public speaking die. Roman lawyer and politician Cicero wrote a series of four books dividing oration into five parts, or canons still in use today. As we look at these canons, we should ask ourselves, “How can rhetorical theories developed over 2500 years ago be put into practice today?” The following are ways we might begin to transcribe Cicero’s ancient theories to contemporary speech writing thought:

  • Invention: the creative process of developing your speech topics

    • Think: What are you going to talk about? What are your ideas?

  • Arrangement: the organization of the speech

    • Think: How are you going to organize your thoughts and ideas?

  • Style: the word choice used in your speech

    • Think: What style of language will you be using? How will your words impact your audience?

  • Memory: the preparation and internalization of your material

    • Note: This is not the memorization of your speech.

    • Think: This is the need to “own your material” to present it effectively. Practice is one way to internalize your material so that you appear fluid and confident.

  • Delivery: The style of how you deliver your speech both verbally and nonverbally

    • Think: Are you making eye contact? Are you changing your pitch, tone, volume, and rate? What message is your body movement conveying?

These canons are just one way you might approach speechmaking and persuasion.

          Another influential Roman orator you may have heard mentioned was Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, better known as Quintilian. He is known for writing that the ideal orator is “a good person speaking well.”


          As time progressed and the Middle Ages set in, the Christian faith grew in popularity. Before converting to Christianity in 386 AD, St. Augustine was a teacher of rhetoric. After conversion, Augustine believed that the message of Christ must be shared with others and the vehicle to share this message was rhetoric.


          At the end of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance began. This period of “Enlightenment” was a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries focusing on reason and individuals rather than tradition. The period of Enlightenment killed rhetoric as it moved away from spirituality as its foundation. Two major schools of thought appeared during this time, Humanism, a cultural movement focusing on human needs, values, and thoughts, “to be a good person.” The second school is Rationalism, a belief that opinions should be based on reason and knowledge, “to think well.” These two schools of thought brought forth many great thinkers of the time, including William Shakespeare, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, and others.

          Throughout history, the spread of thinking and recognition of rhetoric, oratory, and public speaking has been a basis for democracy. In a democracy, we are told the ability to speak for yourself, about yourself, and to represent yourself is a pillar of a free society. With that thinking, the study of public speaking is the cornerstone of our society and democracy. Our democratic responsibilities are why it is important to study, analyze, and learn about our own public speaking qualities and abilities in order to provide knowledge and information and ultimately to persuade others to take or not take action.

Review Questions

1) What is ethos? Pathos? And logos? How do they all relate together? 

2) Who first wrote about ethos, pathos, and logos?

3) Contrast the differences between humanism and rationalism.

4) What are the three types of credibility? How are they similar? 

5) Who first recognized the need to distinct introduction, body, and conclusion sections in speech?

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