Skip to main content

The History of Public Speaking...An Interesting Piece.


The history of public speaking is one nice piece to write about. For me, it’s where the excitement really starts… Because I enjoy anything history!

As far as the history of public speaking is concerned, the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, great speakers of our time and technology all have important roles to play.

What roles have all these played in public speaking history? Hmm... Nice question!

Generally, authors have different views on the subject of the history of public speaking. Some believe the history of public speaking began with the Greeks. Few teach that it lied with the Hebrews. But a vast majority agrees it began with the human race.

For me, I strongly believe that the history of public speaking is as old as the history of the humanity itself. It only became more structured and developed with the Greeks and Romans.

You want me to expatiate? Don’t worry I will.

Over the course of human history, people had always used public speaking to deliver messages. Kings had had reasons to address their subjects from time to time. Generals would often inspire and prepare soldiers for battle. Toasts had always been given at wedding ceremonies. All these had been made possible by public speaking.

History of Public Speaking in Ancient Times

Public speaking was well-practiced among the ancient Hebrews. Hebrew Kings would inform their subjects. Religious leaders and teachers would instruct large assemblies. Plus the Hebrews had a long line of prophets who proclaimed divine messages in public places.

One of the earliest of such prophets was the prophet Moses. He constantly had to address the Israelites as he led them out of slavery from Egypt. He had to inform, inspire and at times rebuke them. He was indeed a great public speaker!

However, the first known book about public speaking was written about 2,400 B.C.E by an Egyptian official named Ptahhotep. He was vizier (minister) to Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi of the fifth dynasty.


Ancient Greeks and the History of Public Speaking

Around the fifth century B.C.E, the Greek district of Athens was a prominent military, political and philosophical center. It was also a great center of learning. At that time, it was a way of life for young Athenian men to make speeches as citizens.

Democracy was on the rise in Athens. So citizens would gather in public places (especially at the market places) to debate political and other economic issues. It was more or less a forum for the exhibition of public speaking abilities. Hence, public speaking became an integral part of their daily life.

A remarkable event that brought the necessity for public speaking to the fore was the establishment of the People’s Court by Solon (a renowned poet, statesman and lawmaker also known as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece) in 594-593 B.C.E. This provided the citizens the opportunity to take their grievances to the court where they could obtain judgment.

However, there were no lawyers. So the citizens had to represent or defend themselves or their families in court. They must be able to present their cases eloquently and confidently to have a measure of success.

Therefore, any citizen’s success in court, politics and social life was greatly dependent on his public speaking abilities and skills.

Profound Greek orators like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates developed theories and techniques that became bedrocks in public speaking. Their ideas later led to the development of schools where public speaking was taught in addition to mathematics and philosophy.

A name worthy of mention in ancient Greek history of public speaking is Demosthenes. He was a symbol of determination and resilience. He had a speech impediment and was described as ‘weak’ while growing up. But he was determined to be a successful public speaker. So he embarked on what could be called a ‘journey of self-development'.

He would practice speaking with a pebble in his mouth to overcome his speech impediment. He would also practice speaking at the shore trying to make himself audible despite the roaring sound of the sea. He would run up the hill while reciting speeches out loud to work on his breathe. The result was that he became a great public speaker. He is regarded as the greatest ancient Greek orator even till this day!

His public speaking style was ‘plain’ and straightforward. It lacked the rhetorical flair that marked the oratory of his time. Yet he left indelible marks on Greek oratory.

Greece eventually lost its supremacy to the Romans.


Rome’s Role in Public Speaking History

After the fall of Greece, Rome came to the scene as a military and political world power. The Romans never discarded the public speaking culture left by the Greeks. They rather adopted and modified them.

A strong influence on the Roman style of public speaking was Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Born in 106 B.C.E, Cicero grew up to become a profound orator, lawyer, philosopher and statesman. According to him, the five rules of public speaking are: Invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. These are generally referred to as the Five Canons of Rhetoric and are still used in modern-day oratory.

The Latin (Roman) style continued to be the main form of oratory in the world until the beginning of the 20th century when emphasis shifted to a ‘plain’ style of speaking.

Modern Day Developments in the History of Public Speaking

The history of the human race is filled with great speakers who had tremendous impact on the world. For example:

Scroll to Continue

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry gave the famous “Liberty of Death” speech. His famous phrase, “Give me freedom, or give me death!” had a great impact as he proclaimed the cause of freedom. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave the famous “Gethyburg Address”. 1908 was the year public speaking was first taught in America by Dale Carnegie.

In 1963, Martin Luther King called for the end of racism in America when he gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This is one of the most famous speeches in American history. And is so popular that it is used as cell phone ring-tones in some parts of the world even as I type these words!

The Role of Technology in Public Speaking History

Technological advancements in the late 20th century as well as the 21st century have given ‘birth’ to sophisticated media sources like the Internet, video-conferencing and telecommunications. These have changed the ‘face’ of public speaking.

With the commencement of the first private Internet service in 1980, public speaking received a big boost. The Internet has since been used to reach worldwide Internet users.

Video-conferencing, on its part, has now made it possible for people in different geographical locations to see and hear each other as if they are at the same place.

The history of public speaking has come a long way from the ancient times till now. Each era of civilization has modified and improved greatly on the art of public speaking.

As to what other advancements the future holds out for public speaking, we can only wait!


jun on July 18, 2013:

long post.... :(

Related Articles