Ethics In Public Speaking

If you don't properly understand ethics in public speaking, you'll never be as effective as you could be when you speak.

In public speaking you don't just behave ethically because it's right - you also do it becase it's persuasive.

This page explains why that's true and, more importantly, how you can use this understanding to speak more persuasively - and of course with no fear.

Ethos - Argument By Character

Most of us think of ethics in terms of 'moral philosophy'. Doing the right thing for example. Ethics in public speaking requires you to think a bit deeper.

Luckily there's been some clear thinking on ethics in public speaking for a couple of thousand years. Aristotle said there were three modes of persuasion - Ethos, Logos and Pathos - and that the most persuasive of these was Ethos or, argument by character.

Ethos, which is the ancient Greek word that the english language eventually borrowed and turned into ethics, literally meant habitat. That doesn't make a lot of sense until you understand who decides whether you're an ethical speaker or not.

That's right ... the audience.

So to be considered of good character you must be what the audience expects. In other words you must conform to their rules, their values, their environment ... in a sense the 'habitat' in which they live. They must identify with you.

Your speech, your appearance, your behaviour all add or detract from your ethos with your audience. In a word they need to be appropriate to the occasion.

Now here's a critical point that a lot of speakers miss as they try to fit in with their audiences.

The audience expects you to be yourself.

Never try and assume a chracter that's too different from your own nature. They'll sniff it out and then you're dead as far as influencing them goes.

Now let's look at how to persuade people by demonstrating ethics in public speaking, every time you talk.

Aristotle's 3 Ways To Build Persuasive Ethos

If you want to be regarded as a persuasive leader when you speak, the three things you need to have going for you are:
  • Virtue
  • Practical Wisdom
  • Selflessness

Now let's look at the different ways to demonstrate ethics in public speaking by putting each one into practice when you speak.


This is where you appear to live up to your audience's values. It's no good if you do live up to their values but you don't seem to. The ways you can do this include getting someone else who the audience already holds in high regard to endorse you.

Practical Wisdom

Your street cred. Build this by showing off your experience. If you can talk about times when you went against book-learning on a subject because your experience told you there was a better way, and you were proved right - that's practical wisdom baby!

You can also build this by appearing to take the middle course in an argument. For example you might be arguing against an opponent with an extreme viewpoint. If you can appear to be the reasonable one who's considered the opposite extremes and chosen a moderate middle course - you'll often be persuasive.

In my country recently the right to smack children was hotly debated. At one extreme were the right wing fundamentalist backed 'spare the rod and spoil the child lobby'. At the other extreme were those who advocated that no parent ever has the right to physically discipline their child as a punishment. The government was ultimately successful in preserving a law that supported the more liberal viewpoint, and they cleverly did it by showing a lot of 'virtue' - taking what appeared to be a sensible middle course (the law is working well, the police are not prosecuting good parents for minor correcive smacks, and the government will monitor it in the future). The majority accepted their view ( having previously opposed it in a referendum 85% to 15% ) leaving only the most strident right wingers advocating for their right to assault their kids.

Another way to show your practical wisdom is to remember the old adage "Rules were meant to be broken". We all love someone who can see the need right in front of them and respond. I once turned up at Heathrow Airport so late I had absolutely zero chance of catching my flight if I went through the normal process of checking in. Luckily for me the lady at the First Class check in desk showed great practical wisdom under pressure and shortly afterwards I was at the door of the aircraft, puffing hard, still with my luggage ,but relieved to be getting on the plane! When I look back on my 21 years in the Navy, one of the most rule bound societies on earth, I can still recall plenty of times when those rules were firmly ditched over the side to get the right result.

Actually the recent near-collapse of the global financial system has it roots in a lack of practical wisdom. The neo cons who stuck slavishly to the rules of their economic philosophy have a lot to answer for (not that they ever will mind you.)


Actually the best way to think of this is the word 'disinterest'. You appear to be of great character when you have no personal interest in the outcome. In other words all you're interested in is the audience benefiting from what you're talking about. This is a powerful way to show ethics in public speaking.

Just contrast someone like Ghandi, who mobilised 300 million people with no weapons against the most powerful military empire in the world ... and won ... with a politician who advocates for a war knowing full well that the value of the shares he holds in a military logistics company will go through the roof if he's successful. One is disinterested even to the point where he would have starved himself to death rather than compromise his principles - the other wasn't, and it eventually showed.

Summary Of Ethics In Public Speaking

  • Ethos is your most powerful persuasive tool
  • Be yourself
  • Be what the audience expects
  • Show your street cred
  • Don't appear to argue an extreme case
  • Don't be the rule-Nazi
  • Show you're there for them, not for you

I'll leave the last word to a wise man called Augustine who was born in what's now called Algeria, in 354. That's a long time ago but one quote of his still rings true, and it's probably all we really need to remember as we think about being ethical in our public speaking:

Love, and do what you will.

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