History of Public Speaking: It’s All Greek to Me!

Lesson Content

Inquire: Sandals, Togas, and Classrooms Under the Sun


DecorativePublic speaking has its roots in ancient Greek culture, and while the stage has certainly changed since then, the need to understand how to engage an audience has not. Often referred to as rhetoric, public speaking can be seen in courtrooms, political gatherings, classrooms, social events, and even family get-togethers. There is not a social setting where public speaking is not in play, and if you think about it, you will see that public speaking is a major part of your life too. Every day, students present class projects, and answer questions in class. We speak with members of groups we belong to about our common interests, and we chat across the dinner table at family holiday gatherings.

To best understand public speaking in all these manifestations, we must start at the beginning, when sandals and togas were the height of fashion and classrooms were outdoors.

Big Question

Why has public speaking been so important in Western culture?

Watch: Public Speaking Through the Ages

Read: All We Are is Dust in the Wind


The origin of public speaking lies in philosophy. The word philosophy comes from two Greek words, “philo” and “sophia”, which together mean “a love of wisdom”. Greek philosophers shared their love of learning with others in the hopes that together, they could discover the answers to important questions such as, “What is the meaning of life?”

Bust of Socrates. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC

“Socrates (469/470-399 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and is considered the father of Western philosophy. Plato was his most famous student and would teach Aristotle, who would then tutor Alexander the Great. Every major philosophical school mentioned by ancient writers following Socrates’ death was founded by one of his followers.”1

A Classical Model

The students and followers of Socrates created what are known as the five schools of Greek philosophy: Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. Originally expressed in Plato’s dialogues, Platonism maintains that universals exist. Aristotelianism is a philosophical school of thought that emphasizes practical wisdom. Stoicism, developed by Zeno of Citium, is a philosophy of personal ethics and is often embraced as a way of life. Epicureanism, a philosophy of moderation based on Epicurus’ teachings, challenged Platonism and eventually Stoicism. Adherents of Skepticism – a philosophical school attributed to Pyrrho of Elis – contend that one should suspend judgment and resist claims of truth.a

While each of these schools had a different focus, they all emphasized the fundamentals of public speaking: pathos, ethos, and logos. Logos, or logic, is an ability to provide a rational argument for a topic that can be supported by other information — either personal stories or documented research. This, in turn, creates ethos, or credibility, which means the speaker has established him-or-herself as someone to be trusted. When the audience trusts a speaker, the argument has more influence on the audience because the speaker’s pathos, or emotional appeal, makes the argument more likely to be considered. A skilled speaker knows the correct manner and time to employ each of these skills. Keep in mind, while logos and pathos are used throughout an entire speech, they are both based on the ethos of the speaker. Although these aspects of rhetoric were fundamental to all schools of Greek philosophy, Aristotle is credited with formalizing these elements in public speaking.

The Debate Of Socrates And Aspasia, circa 1800, by Nicolas André Monsiau

As we have learned, establishing credibility leads to a greater ability for the audience to be moved to act on what we are telling them about. An effective emotional appeal uses persuasion. While we can learn to be effective at persuading others no matter if we are being truthful or not, Aristotle believed, “…truth has a moral superiority that makes it more acceptable than falsehood. But an unscrupulous opponent of the truth may fool a dull audience unless an ethical speaker uses all possible means of persuasion to counter the error… success requires wisdom and eloquence.”2

Think of a circumstance when you might want to go out with friends on a school night. You approach your parents with the request, and they ask where you will be and what you are planning on doing while you are there. If you have a history of being honest, chances are, they are going to be more willing to give permission. However, let’s say you generally are not allowed to leave the house on these nights. Your ability to use your history of honesty and desire to see your friend (“I have not seen Jane in a week”) means you are in a better position to persuade them to let you go, as they know you will follow any rules they set and will be home by your curfew. Any time we seek to negotiate with anyone, in any situation, we are trying to create emotional appeals that attempt to persuade others. Yet, would we even know how to use this skill, or would it even exist, if these ancient Greek philosophers had not first thought to engage with each other and use emotional appeals to motivate their contemporaries to question their own lives, as well as life in general?

1Mark, Joshua J. “Socrates.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 24 Oct 2017.
2Griffin, Em. A First Look at Communication Theory. 8th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2012, p. 289

Reflect: When Do You Typically Use Persuasion?


I use persuasion the most...

Expand: Speaking With Authority


The Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) established that a well-crafted speech was comprised of five important elements: intervention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory. To better understand the importance of each of these elements, consider the following scenario.

DecorativeApplying Cicero’s Five Elements of a Well-Crafted Speech

You have been given the position of fundraising leader for your school’s upcoming trip to Washington D.C., and as your first duty, you are expected to give a speech to your entire grade to explain what the class is raising money for and why it’s important. As well, you are expected to give a few options for fundraising and ask other students what they are interested in doing. This speech is your chance to encourage others to help so the entire grade can have a great trip and engage in several activities. The more money you raise, the more places your class can explore while you are visiting the capitol. So, how do you prepare?

Intervention: You research school fundraising on the internet and watch videos of campaigns other schools have done. You speak with local non-profits and ask questions about different fundraisers they have done, and what has been most successful. During this time, you take notes on all you learn.

Arrangement: You take your notes and review them, highlighting important information that you know will get the attention of other students and discarding any information that is not relevant to your purpose.

Style: You work on developing a presentation that balances professionalism with familiarity. You know that you are presenting to a group of your peers, but you are aware that faculty will be there as well.

Delivery: You think about the language you will use in your speech, how to craft your message, and how to pace yourself. You want to be able to speak clearly, slowly, and use words that allow for the general public (other students) to understand both the concept of the fundraiser and why it’s important to get involved.

Memory: Practice, practice, practice! While Socrates, Cicero, and their students often spoke in public forums in an informal manner, your intent is slightly different. You are not only sharing knowledge; you are working to persuade your audience. Therefore, take the time to work on your speech in front of a mirror, family, or close friends. Get feedback and adjust your speech accordingly. The more you practice, the more confident you will feel. Increased confidence adds to your credibility.

Logos (logic) establishes ethos (credibility), and ethos makes pathos (emotional appeals) more possible. Remember, these key components are what made the Greeks and Romans such skilled orators. Let their experience and teachings work for you. After all, if these skills could not stand the test of time, there would not be schools in existence today founded on these Greek philosophers’ teachings from thousands of years ago.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings


An article on Socrates’ life and his teachings

The Five Great Schools of Ancient Greek Philosophy

A brief history of the 5 Schools of Grecian Philosophy

Ethos, Pathos & Logos – Modes of Persuasion (Aristotle)

What are logos, ethos, and pathos?

The Five Canons of Rhetoric

The five components of a successful speech

Lesson Glossary

Glossary Terms from this Lesson

AJAX progress indicator
  • artifacts
    types of nonverbal communication used on our body and immediate surrounding to communicate messages to others
  • chronemics
    the study of the use of time
  • environment
    nonverbal acts that make use of a certain space
  • haptics
    the study of touch
  • kinesics
    the study of body movement and facial expressions
  • nonverbal communication
    the part of communication that does not include the actual words themselves
  • paralanguage
    vocal qualities such as pitch, volume, rhythm, rate of speech, and inflection
  • proxemics
    the study of how we use space
  • silence
    a nonverbal where no words or sounds are used to convey a message

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Caroline Cuneo for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA

Media Sources

DecorativeParthenon, Athens, GreecePuk PatrickUnsplashPublic Domain
DecorativeBust of SocratesUnknownvia Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeThe Debate Of Socrates And AspasiaNicolas André Monsiauvia Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeItaly Rome Court Cicero StatueDEZALBPixabayPublic Domain

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