Brief History of Public Speaking and Famous Speakers through the Ages


April 30, 2018 - Dom Barnard

Public speaking is an essential life skill in the modern world, full of meetings, conferences and networking events. In this article, we look at the history of public speaking, from Greece to the 21st century, as well as famous orators throughout history.

What is public speaking?

Public speaking is the act of performing a speech to a live audience in a structured manner, in order to inform, entertain and persuade them. There are many aspects to public speaking, from picking a topic and writing a speech, to answering questions from the audience. Public speaking is usually a formal, face-to-face speech to either a single person or group of listeners.

There are five basic elements of public speaking:

  • Communicator
  • Message
  • Medium
  • Audience
  • Effect

Public speaking can serve the purpose of transmitting information, telling a story, motivating people to act or some combination of those.

Public speaking plays a large role in the professional world - it is believed that 70 percent of all jobs involve some form of public speaking.

Greece: the early years of public speaking

The study of public speaking began about 2,500 years ago in ancient Athens. Men were required to give speeches as part of their civic duties, which included speaking in legislative assembly and at court (sometimes to defend themselves as there were no lawyers for the average Athenian).

Citizens would meet in the marketplace and debate issues on war, economics and politics. Good speaking skills were also essential for a prominent social life and mixing with the wealthy.

360 degree feedback process

Aristotle is one of the most famous ancient scholars to study public speaking.

First speaking guides and models

Aristotle and Quintilian are among the most famous ancient scholars to give public speaking definitive rules and models. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the means of persuasion in reference to any subject. Quintilian published a twelve-volume textbook on rhetoric and many of these references are still used today by politicians. He argued that public speaking was inherently moral and stated that the ideal orator is “a good man speaking well.”

Cicero is considered one of the most significant rhetoricians of all time. He is most famous in the field of public speaking for creating the five canons of rhetoric, a five-step process for developing a persuasive speech that we still use to teach public speaking today.

Ethos, logos and pathos

Aristotle discovered that in order to rally the citizens into conformity, one needed to persuade people. This is what he called rhetoric, and it's defined as the capacity to persuade people, and he broke it down into three strategies:

  • Ethos
  • Logos
  • Pathos

Ethos is used when the source is credible and the speaker can show authority over the subject matter.

Logos is used when there are facts to support the argument requiring that the audience use logic and deduction to decide on the strengths of the speaker's argument.

Pathos is used for emotional appeals to gain audience acceptance. Let's break down each by using examples.

Public speaking in the modern age

Throughout the 20th century, speaking in public has once again become crucial to succeed in many careers. Schools and universities started offering courses and lectures on communication skills.

The last few decades have seen renewed emphasis and focus on the works of those from the Classical Period. These decades have combined the old and new schools of communication study for the first time.

Communication departments had professors who studied and taught classical rhetoric, contemporary rhetoric, along with empirical and qualitative social science.

Online courses have also become popular with the rise of the internet. Courses such as public speaking and speech analysis apply fundamental Greek theories, as well as trace rhetorical development throughout the course of history.

Public speaking in the 21st century

In the 21st century, you must communicate effectively to succeed. It can be the difference between landing your dream job, winning a multi-million dollar contract or delivering a moving speech at a wedding.

More and more we are required to speak in public, at conferences, during business meetings, accepting awards, teaching a class, during media events and many other occasions. It has become increasingly hard to avoid public speaking events as oratory skills have become so important.

Obama giving a historic presentation

Obama is one of the greatest public speakers of the 21st century.

Famous public speakers throughout history

1. Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was the British Prime Minister during WW2. He understood his talent of oratory and once wrote, “of all the talents bestowed on men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.”

When WW2 started and France was defeated, he gave his most inspirational speech “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”. And when London was suffering from its worst bombardment during the Blitz, his speeches motivated the British to “never surrender”.

In 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in part for his speeches.

2. John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was the thirty-fifth president of the United States from 1961-63. His speeches were very powerful and inspirational. His speech “We Choose to Go to the Moon” is considered as one of the most influential to persuade the Americans for the space expedition to the moon.

His speech at the Berlin wall in 1963 can also be considered one of the finest pieces of oratory. Just a few months previously, the Soviet Union had built the Berlin wall. Kennedy’s message to the west Berliners was to assure them of US support against the threat of the communists in the east.

3. Socrates

Standing accused of crimes including corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates had a choice: defer and apologize to his accusers for his alleged crimes, or reformulate their scattered accusations into proper legal form and deliver an exhaustive defence for the pursuit of truth, apologizing for nothing.

4. Adolf Hitler

Hitler was an unlikely candidate to become so powerful. He had a deprived childhood and dreamt of becoming an architect. Instead, he became a politician which he achieved through powerful oratory skills.

He could hold the attention of millions as he spoke and with a huge amount of charisma, generated a strong following among the German people.

Hitler was well aware that mastering the art of public speaking was crucial to his political career and would spend hours upon hours rehearsing his speeches.

5. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther was a black civil rights activist in the United States who fought against racial discrimination. He always believed in non-violence and respect for humanity, irrespective of colour, race or creed. His most famous speech, “I Have a Dream” has been listen to by millions since he delivered it. Due to its powerful message, he got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the year 1997.

6. Abraham Lincoln

The Civil War was a time of great divide, and at a moment where the fate of the country was at stake, Abraham Lincoln emerged as a leader capable of bringing his nation’s citizens back together.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave his most famous speech and what is perhaps one of the greatest speeches ever delivered, “The Gettysburg Address”. According to the Lincoln Memorial’s website, the speech lasted only two minutes, but its impact lasted much longer.

7. Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher was the first female British prime minister and used her aggressive public speaking skills to win several elections and stay in office.

Margaret Thatcher was a conservative politician who had a powerful influence on politics at the end of the Cold War years. In foreign affairs, she helped spread the idea of free markets, fought the Falklands War and dealt with problems in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Thatcher was known for her argumentative or forensic communication style. One of her best known catchphrases came during her party conference speech in Brighton in 1980 when she boldly defied her critics by saying: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

Margaret Thatcher giving a speech

8. Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero was a Roman politician and lawyer, who served as consul in the year 63 BC. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the Roman equestrian order, and is considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.

He introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a Latin philosophical vocabulary, distinguishing himself as a linguist, translator, and philosopher. An impressive orator and successful lawyer, he probably thought his political career his most important achievement.

9. Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi is one of the world's great inspiring public speakers. Yet it wasn't always that way. In fact in his early years, Gandhi was a terrified public speaker.

It has often been asserted that Gandhi’s impact on the people he met and spoke to was simply electrifying. These people were not just freedom fighters and politicians, writers and thinkers; Gandhi spoke to people living in slums, villagers, farmers, laborers and the illiterate.

10. Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky was a famous Marxist revolutionary and the founder of the red army. During the communist revolution in Russia, he became famous for his intellect and fiery speeches. The secret of his charisma was his sincere conviction about the ideals of the Marxist communism.

He was considered second only to Lenin. But after Lenin’s death, he was side-lined by the political manoeuvring of more ruthless Stalin. He was later exiled in Mexico where he was assassinated by the orders of Stalin.

11. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Regan was a Hollywood actor and also an American politician. He served as the Governor of California and later as 40th President of United Nations. Due to his ability to connect to his audiences he was named the “Great Communicator”.

His most mesmerizing speech was “Tear down this wall”. This speech was delivered at Brandenburg Gate of Berlin on June 12, 1987. During the speech, he challenged then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy berlin wall.