History of public speaking

The History and Evolution of Public Speaking

The history of public speaking dates back to the time when ancient Greeks considered it as an imperative to facilitate political debate and participation in assemblies, so as to persuade the people (rhetoric.) However, since then it has evolved with novel techniques and methods in order to create maximum impact.

We are not new to the fact that the art of public speaking has been practiced more than 2,500 years ago, right from the period of Aristotle to Plato to Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama and so on.

However, the art of public speaking is evolving and has become quite different from what it was back then. For instance, the purpose or the way of speaking publicly was different during the Medieval Age as compared to that of the Modern Age or the New School period. 

This doesn’t mean that the concept of public speaking has changed as a whole, but the level of understanding has undergone a few changes from one era to the other.

So, what is Public Speaking?

It is a process of communicating purposeful information in front of an audience. It is usually face-to-face and in a formal setting where the aim of the speaker is to influence the listeners.

It is one of the skills that is required in almost all the areas of your life, for instance, to promote ideas or to give a speech at your friend’s wedding, or in a debate.

Communication has been an inevitable part of our lives and the backbone of our society.

One common purpose of public speaking is to inform and persuade the listeners in order to act upon it which is prevalent in both- traditional and contemporary times. 

In order to master the skill of public speaking, you first need to know and understand what you are trying to achieve.

Related article- How can one learn public speaking?

What is the History of Public Speaking:

The history of public speaking dates back to the time when the ancient civilizations used public speakers to deliver their messages.

1) The Classical Period (500 BCE – 400 BCE)

Although public speaking training first started in Egypt, the written piece regarding the oratory came from Ancient Greece. Public speaking emerged as a crucial tool because the Greeks highly valued public political participation. 

The development of public speaking theories during the Classical period was marked by Aspasia of Miletus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle aka The Fantastic Four.

During the classical period, Rhetoric (a tool to persuade the listeners) was considered to be the main component of speech delivery or discourse.

However, each of them had defined rhetoric in different ways, for instance, Plato defined the scope of rhetoric in terms of his negative opinions about the art on the other hand, Aristotle defined its scope by the three means of persuasion i.e. Ethos, Logos and Pathos.

Amongst the four, Aristotle was one of the most famous Greek scholars, as he developed definitive models for public speaking. He also came up with his own institution called The Lyceum where he taught the theories and principles of public speaking.

2) The Romans

The Roman culture of public speaking is highly inspired by the Greek culture of training. The Roman orators developed and modified the Greek techniques of public speaking. 

Some of the areas of study during this period was how to add wit and humor in your speech, how to appeal to the audience’s emotions and the use of digressions.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was considered to be one of the significant rhetoricians of all time. He developed a theory called the Five Canons of Rhetoric– a five-step process for developing a persuasive speech that we still use while teaching public speaking today.

The Five steps of Canons Rhetoric are:

i) Invention

Invention refers to coming up with an idea in order to make your speech interesting. It is basically a brainstorming period. 

For instance, before the trial, an attorney general would invent ways on how she can combat the charges against her client.

ii) Arrangement

Once you have invented the idea, the next step is to arrange that data in an organized manner.

Taking the same example, the attorney general in this stage would decide the order in which she would address the charges against her client.

iii) Style

In this stage, you try to make choices that would help you to create an impact, so as to persuade your audience. This would include your tone of voice, word choice, etc.

Example- In this stage, the attorney general would come up with catchy lines or maybe facts that would help her to address the charges effectively. 

iv) Memory 

Memory here refers to the content you know about your topic. The more you research the more you will know about it and gain an in-depth knowledge regarding the same.

Example- The attorney general would try to memorize the key points of her argument, so as to present them effectively in front of the jury. 

v) Delivery

Delivery refers to the way you actually present your information. It involves your body language, tone of voice, eye contact and much more.

In this case, the attorney general might maintain a direct eye-contact with each jurors or use hand gestures while delivering her argument.

This is how the Classical Period marked the foundation of public speaking techniques that are practiced till today.

3) The Medieval Period (400 CE  -1400 CE)

In contrast to the development and modifications that took place during the Classical period, the Medieval age was considered to be a dark phase. 

However, St. Augustine, a Christian clergyman and a renowned rhetorician, continued to develop ideas and considered the study of persuasion that had originated during the Classical Period.

4) The Renaissance (1400 CE- 1600 CE)

The Renaissance period saw a rise of new intellectuals and rhetoricians who emphasized more on the style of public speaking. 

Petrus Ramus challenged the theories of the great scholars from the Classical Period and focused on logic rather than rhetoric. According to him, logic falls under two parts- invention and judgement.

He also challenged much of what the great scholars thought about ethics, morals and the way they tied it up to communications.

According to Francis Bacon, morality and reasoning should be an essential part of any oration.

5) The Enlightenment (1600 CE – 1800 CE)

The Enlightenment Period was considered to be a bridge between the past and the present. 

In the presence of Neoclassicism, the classical approach of rhetoric was applied and practiced as per the situations present that time.

George Campbell, a Scottish minister and educator, used scientific and moral reasoning to understand how persuasion in speech works, meaning how people use speech to persuade others.

It was in this period where the elocutionary approach was developed that mainly focused on the delivery aspect of public speaking, namely- tone of voice, gestures, body language, facial expressions, and pronunciations.

New political rhetoric was developed which was highly inspired by ancient Greeks and Romans as well as from the Five Canons of Rhetoric by Cicero. 

6) New School (from 1900s till today)

The New School considered public speaking as a separate field of study. Communication departments have professors or instructors to teach about the classical and modern rhetoric.  For instance, Toastmasters is one such training organization that aims at teaching its members public speaking skills.

In the 21st century, due to the technological advancements, different forms of public speaking have come into existence.

Ted Talk is one such example that is broadcasted globally and consists of professionals who talk about various aspects of public speaking. People consume Ted Talks mainly for inspiration.

The new forms of public speaking are YouTube broadcasting, video conferencing and Podcasts which don’t involve real, physical audience; however, they have the power to educate, entertain and persuade the viewers or the listeners.  

Why is it important to know the History of Public Speaking?

The study of history allows one to make more sense of the current world. 

If you are intrigued to know how the art of public speaking has evolved over the years then you should really consider studying history. It allows you to have an in-depth knowledge and understanding about public speaking.

As we already know, how important public speaking is, we wouldn’t have been enlightened by this entire concept of oration, if it was not introduced to us by the ancient scholars.

For instance, we wouldn’t have known that the structure of a great speech should include Ethos, Pathos and Logos in it which are basically known as three modes of persuasion by Aristotle.

The foundation of public speaking has been laid down thousands of years ago and is still prevalent and followed today. 

History of public speaking has been marked by great speakers like John F. Kennedy,  Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and many more. 

Therefore, history of public speaking is not only limited to speeches of great leaders, but also shows how their words have been making a deep impact on mankind and how their words and theories are still being practiced till today.

Over the years there have been various changes in the way people deliver their speeches and the way how their speeches are being made use of.

In short, without knowing the history of public speaking, you wouldn’t have come to know about various concepts or have an extensive knowledge about it, or get inspired by the way these great speakers spoke back then.

Since by now you must have understood the gist of how public speaking came into existence and its evolution, these are the three types of public speaking that were used back then as well as are being used till today.

Types of Public Speaking:

1) Speaking to Inform

This type of public speaking is used when the orator wants to inform the audience about something. It is used in order to impart information about a particular issue or topic. For instance, providing information about a new product via a presentation, or holding a college seminar in order to make students aware about the new courses.

When you are giving an informative speech to the audience, you first need to undergo an extensive research, so as to provide facts and insightful information. 

Dating back to the ancient Greek civilization that depended on the eloquent orators, so as to inform and uplift the society as a whole.  

In fact, till today some of those speeches are read and studied as literature. 

2) Speaking to Persuade, Motivate, or to Actuate

Persuasive speech is often considered by the speaker when he wants to persuade his audience over something. Here, you basically try to convince the audience about your idea and why is it important for them to act upon it.

For instance, when a salesman is trying to convince the customers to buy his product. So here, he will try and persuade the buyers by showing the importance of his product in their life. 

In short, you try to change or influence the opinions of the audience over a particular topic.

Initially, the Greeks considered public speaking as a Rhetoric- a tool to persuade the listeners. This is because Greeks highly valued political participation; therefore, rhetoric was a great tool to influence the people, shape communities and civic lives.

3) Speaking to Entertain

As the name suggests, you give a speech in order to entertain your listeners. This type of public speaking is used under an informal setting like weddings, dinner parties, and ceremonies.  

For instance, when you give a speech to thank the host for an amazing dinner party. 

The speaker usually tries to give a personal touch, add funny incidents, so as to make his speech humorous and amusing for the audience. 

The Greeks called it as the Epideictic Oratory or praise-and-blame rhetoric speeches where they used to declaim, praise, play, and entertain during festivals or ceremonies.

Pro tip- The success of a speech depends upon how much your audience could understand.

Who is the Father of Public Speaking?

Aristotle is the father of public speaking. His philosophies are considered to be empirical, practical and commonsensical. 

He was the first philosopher to consider the dynamics of public speaking and persuasion and to compile those observations in The Rhetoric.  In effect, this became the first textbook on public speaking. 

However, for 20 years Aristotle was Plato’s student, but their philosophies were quite different, as Aristotle’s philosophies mainly pointed out to the world.

Aristotle was the one who came up with the definitive rules and models of public speaking. It was because of his emphasis on oratory that led to oration becoming a central part of liberal arts and education.

The classical antiquity works written by him captured the ways in which the art of public speaking was taught and developed.  

He came up with the three rules of public speaking and termed it as Rhetoric– “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”

The three rules or means of persuasion are-  Logos, Ethos & Pathos.

i) Ethos (Credibility)

Ethos basically refers to ethics, meaning a speaker must radiate moral characters to create an aura of trust and authority in the audience. 

It means you need to be considered as a credible source, so that the audience bothers to even listen to you.

For instance, when you listen to a famous person talk, even though he won’t be that good at communicating, he is still creating an impact on you because he is a credible source.

ii) Logos (Logical Reasoning)

Logos mean supporting your speech with logical reasoning in the form of facts, figures and evidence. 

According to Aristotle, it is one of the most effective ways of helping the audience to get to the conclusion of an argument on their own.

Let’s assume you attended a speech where the speaker talks about the ill-effects of social media and then provides you with the statistics and backs it up with facts which shook you to the very core. Such speeches are more likely to gain traction.

Related article- Ways to Add Facts in your Speech Without Making It Boring.

iii) Pathos (Emotional Appeal) 

It refers to adding an emotional touch to your speech, so as to cater to the audience’s emotions.

An emotional appeal works the best because you make the audience feel what you feel about a particular subject which helps you to get them on the same page as you, which in turn helps you (speaker) to form a connection with them.

For example, when you listen to a speech that is basically trying to convince you to donate for the people who are impaired. It is obviously going to touch your emotions, making you more empathetic towards the entire situation.

Therefore, a great speech is an amalgamation of these three means that will help you to engage and persuade your audience.

Famous Public Speakers in History

The history of humankind is filled with great orators and their speeches had the power to change the world. Despite the fact that the techniques of public speaking have evolved, the historical speeches are still studied till today.

Let us look at few of the best orators in history and their world-class speeches: 

1) Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Initially he wasn’t that effective while talking, as he spoke in a monotone, without much change in pitch, pace or volume. He also suffered from a speech impairment, meaning he had difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”.

However, he transformed himself as a great speaker. This is because he understood the power that words hold. 

“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.

Winston Churchill

One of his famous speeches is- “We shall Fight on the Beaches” which he gave during the second world war where he spoke about the military disaster and the invasive attempt by Nazis.

2) John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy is considered to be one of the greatest orators and therefore he was voted as the 2nd best orator of the 20th century.

One such thing that made him a compelling public speaker was his ability to give a speech in such a way that it felt like he was having an authentic conversation with the public, as opposed to lecturing them.

Researchers argue that he possessed everything that a speaker should have. For instance, his tone of voice had a variation in pace (sometimes fast, sometimes slow), a variation in volume (sometimes loud, sometimes soft) and a variation in pitch along with smooth transitions which made his speeches far more interesting. 

In short, his speeches were nothing less than perfect. The arrangement and construction of the speech was so well that it made the content flow effortlessly from the powerful headline.

The most influential speech by John F. Kennedy is “Why go to the moon?” where he persuaded the Americans to support the Apollo program- a national effort to land a man on the Moon.

3) Martin Luther King Jr. 

We all know Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated half of his career fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans. Almost all his speeches focused on important moral issues. 

The tone of his voice in most of his speeches was usually very forceful and passionate. When you listen to his speech, you will observe that he starts with a low pace and then raises it high, so as to lay emphasis on the key points and draw the audiences’ attention.

While giving a speech, he used to allow himself to form a symbiotic connection with his audience.

One of the most famous speeches “I have a dream” was by Martin Luther King Jr where he called for civil and economic rights to end racism in America.

4) Socrates 

Socrates greatly influenced the art of public speaking during the Classical period. He was a great teacher in the history of the western world. He emphasized on the ability to question anything and everything or even if it is the Athenian authority.

However, the Athenian youth considered him to be a threat and was charged with allegations like corrupting the youth, not believing the gods, and creating new deities.

“The Apology” was Socrates’ defense to these charges. Instead of pleading the jury for mercy, he tried to persuade them. 

5) Abraham Lincoln

“The Gettysburg Address” is one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric which was delivered by Abraham Lincoln.

This speech was delivered at the time of the civil war. The speech lasted only for 3 minutes where he aimed at testing whether the government could maintain the proposition of equality and discard the practice of slavery. In short, his speech aimed at reviving the constitution in such a way where everyone had freedom and equality.

The words chosen by him could be understood by anyone which made his message more clear, concise and impactful. 

You can also check- Ways to end your speech with impact.

6) Ronald Reagan 

Ronald Reagan, also called The Great Communicator because of his ability and determination to educate the audience by bringing his ideas to life in such a way that the audience was able to visualize it.

As an orator he believed that the use of language or words should be such that they are easy to comprehend. The other thing was that in order to make your message seep into the minds of the people, you need to repeat it time and again. 

“I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”

Ronald Reagan

Two of his greatest speeches are:

  • Government is the Problem (where he addressed the country’s economic issues)
  • Tear Down This Wall or The Berlin Wall Speech (which was given by him during the Berlin Wall crisis where he openly challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall)

7) Barack Obama

What makes Barack Obama an excellent speaker is the way he taps into the emotions of the audience. All of his speeches have an emotional (Pathos) touch to it.

As an orator, he made his speech so relatable that the audience agreed to his approaches.

In short, he has a real knack of connecting personal stories, tapping into people’s emotions, showing an optimistic vision, and backing his speech up with evidence and facts.

 “A More Perfect Union” is one of his effective speeches where he talks about the racial inequalities and white supremacy.

Final Thoughts

History is more than just knowing about the leaders and the wars. Instead it is a way through which you can know the stories of how someone stood for something or the power of a speech given by someone which had the ability to change the entire direction of the world.

At the end of the day, it is because of our past leaders why we are able to speak fluently with such a great impact in front of a large audience. It also serves as a reference for our current leaders to ready themselves for their rallies, talks, campaigns, etc.

Therefore, one should consider knowing the history of public speaking, as it provides you with guidelines and techniques on ways to craft and deliver an effective and impactful speech.

Related article- An ultimate guide to structuring an impactful speech.

Hitiksha Jain

A lover of art and design, words and photography, journaling and sweatshirts, Hitiksha is a media student and a writer at Frantically Speaking. Tea, waffles, and pasta are good for her mental health, so she says. Through her writing, she’s here to share her learnings and experiences with you.