History Of Public Speaking

Let's look at a very brief history of public speaking because it can help with the first two of our dynamic trio, and might even inspire you to do the third:

  • Understand It
  • Love It
  • Practice It

Ancient Beginnings

It seems like the history of public speaking starts nearly 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece with a guy called Gorgias. He was a Sophist ('wise man') which in those days meant an itinerant intellectual who taught classes in philosophy and rhetoric (persuasive speaking). He was obviously highly skilled and probably the first person to propose that rhetoric was important - he actually thought it was the most important of all subjects. He did well financially for himself and supposedly lived to be more than 100! Not bad in those days.

In either 385 or 382 BC Demosthenes is born. He becomes regarded as the greatest orator of the Ancient World, and by some as the greatest orator of all time. Unfortunately he committed suicide when it looked like he'd be captured and killed by his political enemies. He made a stirring speech just before the poison took hold though!

In 332 BC Aristotle publishes his Rhetoric which is regarded as the greatest work on the subject ever written. He set out to systematically explain the science and art of persuasive speech. He also said that Rhetoric was one of the three parts of Philosophy - along with Logic and Dialectic.

In 106 BC Marcus Tullius Cicero is born. A Roman lawyer and politician who competes in some people's mind as the greatest orator in the history of public speaking! Wrote his masterpiece On The Oratorwhich has some enduring principles that still help people speak persuasively and well.

43 BC Cicero assassinated. Don't get worried. This is unlikely to happen to you when you speak in public.

93 AD Quintillian writes Institutio Oratoria, a textbook on rhetoric which, along with Aristotle and Cicero's works, stands as one of the greatest works on the subject from the Ancient World. In fact it was so good it was used until Shakepseare's time - you'd be happy if your textbook lasted more than 1500 years!

Middle Ages

1588 Queen Elizabeth I of England addresses her troops just before the battle against the Spanish Armada, the huge fleet sent by Phillip of Spain to invade and conquer the English. A brilliant stirring speech that may have helped, who knows? The Brits won.

The Modern Era

1863 Nov 19 Abraham Lincoln delivers 'The Gettysburg Address'. The most famous, really short speech in history?

1940 June 4 Winston Churchill tells the House Of Commons and the British people that, among other things 'we shall fight them on the beaches...we shall never surrender'

1950 Kenneth Burke publishes A Rhetoric Of Motives which is probably the greatest work on the subject in the last hundred years or so.

1961 John F Kennedy asks not what your country can do for you...

1963 Martin Luther King delivers "I have a dream' speech.

2009 Barack Obama delivers his inaugration speech in front of a crowd of 1.8 million.

How will you add to this illustrious tradition?

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