Ethical Speaking

In January, 2012, an Australian politician, Anthony Albanese, presented a speech to the National Press Club. Several people criticized this speech, saying that he stole lines from Michael Douglas’s character (the U.S. President) in the movie The American President. Several specific lines from Albanese’s speech did seem to mirror Douglas’s monologue, with only the names changed. The Liberal Party federal director, Brian Loughnane, claimed that this shows Albanese is “unoriginal and devoid of ideas.” Others stated that he should be embarrassed and should apologize to the Parliament.[1]

What do you think about Albanese’s speech? Was this a simple mishap? A funny prank? Something more serious? What do you think this says about Albanese’s character? His reputation as a politician? Assessing your attitudes and values toward this situation is the same as considering how ethics play a role in public speaking.

Ethical public speaking is not a one-time event. It does not just occur when you stand to give a 5-minute presentation to your classmates or co-workers. Ethical public speaking is a process. This process begins when you begin brainstorming the topic of your speech. Every time you plan to speak to an audience—whether it is at a formal speaking event or an impromptu pitch at your workplace—you have ethical responsibilities to fulfill. The two most important aspects in ethical communication include your ability to remain honest while avoiding plagiarism and to set and meet responsible speech goals.

Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people. – Spencer Johnson

Be Honest and Avoid Plagiarism

Credible public speakers are open and honest with their audiences. Honesty includes telling your audience why you’re speaking (thesis statement) and what you’ll address throughout your speech (preview). For instance, one example of dishonest speech is when a vacation destination offers “complimentary tours and sessions” which are really opportunities for a sales person to pitch a timeshare to unsuspecting tourists. In addition to being clear about the speech goal, honest speakers are clear with audience members when providing supporting information.

One example of dishonest public communication occurs in the music industry where many cases of illegal melody lifting exist. For example, a famous Beach Boys song titled Surfin’ USA is actually a note-for-note rendition of a 1958 Chuck Berry song. Though it may be common, the practice of not properly crediting an author for his or her work is unethical. Other examples of deceitful communication include political speeches that intentionally mislead the public. For instance, a former White House press aide, Scott McClellan, claims that President Bush misled the American people about reasons for the Iraqi war. McClellan claims that the President had manipulated sources in order to gain support for the war. Such claims can be damaging to one’s reputation. Thus, responsible public speakers must actively avoid plagiarism and remain committed to honesty and integrity at all costs.


Identify Your Sources

The first step of ethical speech preparation is to take notes as you research your speech topic. Careful notes will help you remember where you learned your information. Recalling your sources is important because it enables speaker honesty. Passing off another’s work as your own or neglecting to cite the source for your information is considered plagiarism. This unethical act can result in several consequences, ranging from a loss in credibility to academic expulsion or job loss. Even with these potential consequences, plagiarism is unfortunately common. In a national survey, 87 percent of students claimed that their peers plagiarized from the Internet at least some of the time.[2] This statistic does not take into account whether or not the plagiarism was intentional, occurring when the writer or speaker knowingly presented information as his or her own; or unintentional, occurring when careless citing leads to information being uncredited or miscredited. However, it is important to note that being unaware of how to credit sources should not be an excuse for unintentional plagiarism. In other words, speakers are held accountable for intentional and unintentional plagiarism. The remainder of this section discusses how to ensure proper credit is given when preparing and presenting a speech.

A liar should have a good memory. – Quintilian

There are three distinct types of plagiarism—global, patchwork, and incremental plagiarism.[3] Global plagiarism, the most obvious form of plagiarism, transpires when a speaker presents a speech that is not his or her own work. For example, if a student finds a speech on the Internet or borrows a former speech from a roommate and recites that speech verbatim, global plagiarism has occurred. Global plagiarism is the most obvious type of theft. However, other forms of plagiarism are less obvious but still represent dishonest public speaking.

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. – Mark Twain

rainbow Dahlia quilt

“Rainbow Dahlia quilt” by Holice E. Turnbow. CC-BY-SA.

Sometimes a student neglects to cite a source simply because she or he forgot where the idea was first learned. Shi explains that many students struggle with plagiarism because they’ve reviewed multiple texts and changed wording so that ideas eventually feel like their own. Students engage in “‘patchwriting’ by copying from a source text and then deleting or changing a few words and altering the sentence structures.”[4] Patchwork plagiarism is plagiarism that occurs when one “patches” together bits and pieces from one or more sources and represents the end result as his or her own. Michael O’Neill also coined the term “paraplaging”[5] to explain how an author simply uses partial text of sources with partial original writing. An example of patchwork plagiarism is if you create a speech by pasting together parts of another speech or author’s work. Read the following hypothetical scenario to get a better understanding of subtle plagiarism.

Three months ago, Carley was talking to her coworkers about expanding their company’s client base. Carley reported some of the ideas she’d been pondering with Stephen and Juan. The three employees shared ideas and provided constructive criticism in order to perfect each notion, and then mentioned they’d revisit the conversation over lunch sometime soon. A week later, Carley shared one of her ideas during the company’s Monday morning staff meeting. Carley came up with the idea, but Stephen and Juan helped her think through some of the logistics of bringing in more clients. Her peers’ input was key to making Carley’s client-building idea work. When Carley pitched her idea at the company staff meeting, she didn’t mention Stephen or Juan. She shared her idea with senior management and then waited for feedback.

Did Carley behave unethically? Some would say: “No!” since she shared her own idea. Did Carley speak honestly? Perhaps not because she didn’t account for how her idea took shape—with the help of Stephen and Juan. This scenario is an example of how complicated honesty becomes when speaking to an audience.

The third type of plagiarism is incremental plagiarism, or when most of the speech is the speaker’s original work, but quotes or other information have been used without being cited. Incremental plagiarism can occur if, for example, you provide a statistic to support your claim, but do not provide the source for that statistic. Another example would be if a student included a direct quote from former president Ronald Reagan without letting the audience know that those were Reagan’s exact words. Understanding the different types of plagiarism is the first step in ensuring that you prepare an honest speech.

Table 3.1: Purdue OWL APA Guide for Citing Sources[6]
Cite Don’t Cite
Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium. Writing your own lived experiences, your own observations and insights, your own thoughts, and your own conclusions about a subject.
Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person, face to face, over the phone, or in writing. When you are writing up your own results obtained through lab or field experiments.
When you copy the exact words or a unique phrase. When you use your own artwork, digital photographs, video, audio, etc.
When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials. When you are using common knowledge—things like folklore, common sense observations, myths, urban legends, and historical events (but not historical documents).
When you reuse or repost any electronically available media, including images, audio, video, or other media. When you are using generally accepted facts, e.g. pollution is bad for the environment.

Decide When to Cite

When speaking publicly you must orally cite all information that isn’t general knowledge. For example, if your speech claims that the sun is a star, you do not have to cite that information since it’s general knowledge. If your speech claims that the sun’s temperature is 15.6 million Kelvin,[7] then you should cite that source aloud. Ethical speakers are not required to cite commonly known information (e.g., skin is the largest human organ; Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. in 2008). However, any information that isn’t general knowledge must be orally cited during a speech. The same is true in the text of a speech outline: cite all non-general information.

The OWL, an online writing lab at Purdue University, provides an excellent guide for when you need to cite information (see Table 3.1). Understanding when to include source material is the first step in being able to ethically cite sources. The next step in this process is to determine how to appropriately cite sources orally and in written materials.

Cite Sources Properly

You’ve learned the importance of citing sources. Now that you know why written and oral citations are important to the ethical process of public speaking, let’s focus on how to cite supporting speech material. Studies show that oftentimes students do not cite a source because they’re unsure of how or when to cite a reference. Shi’s study describes some typical responses for why students did not cite sources, such as “I couldn’t remember where I learned the information,” or “I had already cited that author and didn’t want the audience to think all of my information was from some outside source.” Though these rationales are understandable, they are not ethical.

Understand Paraphrasing and Direct Quotations

Next, it is important to understand the process for paraphrasing and directly quoting sources in order to support your speech claims. First, what is the difference between paraphrasing and directly quoting a source? If you research and learn information from a source—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for instance— and then share that information in your own words; you don’t use quotation marks; but you do credit the CDC as your source. This is known as a paraphrase—a sentence or string of sentences that shares learned information in your own words. A direct quote is any sentence or string of sentences that conveys an author’s idea word-for-word. According to the APA (American Psychological Association), when writing speech content, you must include quotation marks around an author’s work when you use his or her keywords, phrases, or sentences. This would be relevant for a speech outline, a handout, or a visual aid. It is also important to specify a direct quote when you are orally citing during your speech. This indicates to the audience that you are using the original author’s exact words. While it is acceptable to use the phrases “begin quote” and “end quote” to indicate this to your audience, such phrases can be distracting to the audience. One way to clearly and concisely indicate a direct quote is to take a purposeful pause right before and after the quoted material. This differentiates between your words and the source material’s words. See Table 3.2 for examples of how to paraphrase and directly quote an author, both in written speech materials and for an oral citation.

Table 3.2: Written and Oral Source Citations[8][9]
Written Citations Oral Citations
Original Text You cannot do a nonstop flight to the second half of life by reading lots of books about it, including this one. Grace must and will edge you forward. Your best defense against influenza—and its possible complications—is to receive an annual vaccination. In fact, CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu vaccination.
Paraphrase for Written Speech Materials It is through the practice of showing grace that we grow and develop as individuals (Rohr, 2011). The CDC (2008) suggests that people get a vaccination at least once a year to avoid the flu.
Direct Quote for Written Speech Materials According to Rohr (2011), “Grace must and will edge you forward” (p. 2). There is something you can do to avoid the flu. The CDC states that, “Your best defense against influenza—and its possible complications—is to receive an annual vaccination” (para. 6).
Oral Citation for Paraphrase In Rohr’s 2011 book, Falling upward: A spirituality for the halves of life, he discussed how we show grace to others which allows us to grow and develop as individuals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (2008), people should get a preventative vaccination at least once a year to avoid the flu.
Oral Citation for Direct Quote Rohr (2011), in his book Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life, stated that [pause] “Grace must and will edge you forward” [pause]. On their website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2008) states that, [pause] “your best defense against influenza—and its possible complications—is to receive an annual vaccination” [pause].

Develop Accurate Citations

Ethical speakers share source information with the audience. On written materials, such as handouts or speech outlines, citations are handled much like they would be in any essay. In addition to written citations, oral citations provide source information to audience members who may not see your written speech. In all citations, enough information should be given so that the audience can easily find the source.

You may choose to briefly describe the author before citing him or her to lend credibility to your supporting information. Writing style guidebooks, such as APA or MLA (Modern Language Association), teach that a source’s credentials are not necessary in the text of your paper. We can interpret that the same is true for providing oral citations in a speech–the author’s occupation, the source website, or the journal name are not required but may be helpful verbal cues to explain the legitimacy of your chosen source. You should provide enough information so that an audience member can locate the source. For instance, it might be useful to describe the doctor as a leading pediatrician–after which you would state the doctor’s last name, year of publication, and the quote or paraphrase. To orally paraphrase a Langer quote (see example poster in Figure 3.1), you might say to your audience:

I really agree with Langer (1989), who wrote in her book Mindfulness, that our world is constructed from the categories we build in our mind. I find that I interpret the world based on my initial understanding of things and have to mindfully force myself to question the categories and biases I’ve formally created in my head. 

Figure 3.1: Sample Poster with Key Quote[10]
[Poster Title] “We experience the world by creating categories and making distinctions among them” (Langer, 1989, p. 11).
[Main Point 1 Content] [Main Point 2 Content]

Note, the Langer paraphrase provides the author’s last name, year of publication, and the title of the book should an audience member want to find the orally cited source.

Ethical speakers provide written, oral, and visual citations. Visual aids, discussed in Chapter 13, include posters, objects, models, PowerPoints, and handouts. Visual aids are used to enhance your speech message. Visual aids, just like speech content, must be displayed ethically for the audience. In other words, if you use a poster to display a famous quote, then you should cite the author on your poster (see Figure 3.1). Similarly, you should cite sources on your PowerPoint throughout the presentation. It is not sufficient to include a “Sources” or “References” slide at the end of your PowerPoint because that does not accurately link each author to his or her work. Instead, ethical presenters provide an author reference on the slide in which the cited content is shown (see Figure 3.2).

Speakers should also carefully select and correctly cite images displayed in their visual aid. Images should be relevant to the keywords used on your PowerPoint slide. In other words, captions are not necessary because the image can stand alone; images you display should obviously correlate with your speech content (a caption is typically used because the picture needs explanation). In other words, the presence of a caption typically means your image does not directly correspond with the verbal speech material. Images should support, not distract, from the verbal or visual message. Hence, there is no need for blinking, rotating, or otherwise distracting visual aids.[11] Images should be simple and relevant. All pictures should be cited, unless the presenter uses a personal, clipart, or purchased stock image. To cite an image, simply include the credit (or web link) to that picture; note, however, the font size of the link should be reduced so that it is visible to the audience without distracting from the content in your visual aid. Seeing an image link should not be distracting to audience members.

Question mark with a copyright symbol.

“Question copyright” by Ttog~commonswiki. CC-BY-SA.

It’s also important to understand how copyright law might affect what and how you include information in your speech and on your visual aid. The fair use provision allows for copyrighted information to be shared if it is used for educational benefits, news reporting, research, and in other situations. Nolo explains, “In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.”[12] In order to determine if the use of content falls under the fair use provision, there are four factors to consider:

  1. How will this be used?
  2. What is to be used?
  3. How much will be used?
  4. What effect does this have?[13]

You can find more about these four factors at the U.S. Copyright website.

Ethical citing includes crediting authors in the text of your written speech materials, acknowledging authors aloud during your speech, and citing images and sources on your visual aid. However, ethics in public speaking encompass more than crediting source material. It’s also necessary to strive for responsible speech goals.

Ethics and equity and the principles of justice do not change with the calendar. – David Herbert Lawrence

Set Responsible Speech Goals

Jensen coined the term “rightsabilities” to explain how a communicator must balance tensions between speaker rights and responsibility to others. Ensuring that you have responsible speech goals is one way to achieve ethical communication in public speaking. There are several speech goals that support this mission. This section will focus on five goals: 1) promote diversity, 2) use inclusive language, 3) avoid hate speech, 4) raise social awareness, and 5) employ respectful free speech.

Female pilots walking toward their planes.

“U.S. Air Force” by Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown. Public domain.

Promote Diversity

One important responsibility speakers have is fostering diversity, or an appreciation for differences among individuals and groups. Diversity in public speaking is important when considering both your audience and your speech content. Promoting diversity allows audience members who may be different from the speaker to feel included and can present a perspective to which audience members had not previously been exposed. Speakers may choose a speech topic that introduces a multicultural issue to the audience or can promote diversity by choosing language and visual aids that relate to and support listeners of different backgrounds. Because of the diversity present in our lives, it is necessary to consider how speakers can promote diversity.

One simple way of promoting diversity is to use both sexes in your hypothetical examples and to include co-cultural groups when creating a hypothetical situation. For example, you can use names that represent both sexes and that also stem from different cultural backgrounds. In the story about Carley and her co-workers, her co-workers were deliberately given male names so that both sexes were represented. Ethical speakers also encourage diversity in races, socioeconomic status, and other demographics. These choices promote diversity. In addition, ethical speakers can strive to break stereotypes. For instance, if you’re telling a hypothetical story about a top surgeon in the nation, why not make the specialized surgeon a female from a rural area? Or make the hypothetical secretary a man named Frank? You could also include a picture in your visual aid of the female surgeon or the male secretary at work. Ethical speakers should not assume that a nurse is female or that a firefighter is male. Sexist language can alienate your audience from your discussion.[14]

Another way that sexist language occurs in speeches is when certain statements or ideas are directed at a particular sex. For example, the “Selecting a Florist” speech described at the beginning of this chapter may be considered sexist by many audience members. Another example is the following statement, which implies only males might be interested in learning how to fix a car: “I think that fixing a car is one of the most important things you can learn how to do. Am I right, guys?” Promoting diversity is related to using inclusive language, discussed in the following sections.

Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism. – Oprah Winfrey

Use Inclusive Language

Avoiding sexist language is one way to use inclusive language. Another important way for speakers to develop responsible language is to use inclusionary pronouns and phrases. For example, novice speakers might tell their audience: “One way for you to get involved in the city’s Clean Community Program is to pick up trash on your street once a month.” Instead, an effective public speaker could exclaim: “One way for all of us to get involved in our local communities is by picking up trash on a regular basis.” This latter statement is an example of “we” language—pronouns and phrases that unite the speaker to the audience. “We” language (instead of “I” or “You” language) is a simple way to build a connection between the speaker, speech content, and audience. This is especially important during a persuasive speech as “we” language establishes trust, rapport, and goodwill between the speaker and the audience. Take, for example, the following listener relevance statements in a persuasive speech about volunteering:

“You” language: You may say that you’re too busy to volunteer, but I don’t agree. I’m here to tell you that you should be volunteering in your community.

“We” language: As college students, we all get busy in our daily lives and sometimes helpful acts such as volunteering aren’t priorities in our schedules. Let’s explore how we can be more active volunteers in our community.

In this exchange, the “you” language sets the speaker apart from the audience and could make listeners defensive about their time and lack of volunteering. On the other hand, the “we” language connects the speaker to the audience and lets the audience know that the speaker understands and has some ideas for how to fix the problem. This promotes a feeling of inclusiveness, one of the responsible speech goals.

Avoid Hate Speech

Another key aspect of ethical speaking is to develop an awareness of spoken words and the power of words. The NCA Credo of Ethical Communication highlights the importance of this awareness: “We condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through distortion, intimidation, coercion, and violence, and through the expression of intolerance and hatred.”[15] Words can be powerful—both in helping you achieve your speech goal and in affecting your audience in significant ways. It is essential that public speakers refrain from hate or sexist language. Hate speech, according to Verderber, Sellnow, and Verderber, “is the use of words and phrases not only to demean another person or group but also to express hatred and prejudice.”[16] Hate language isolates a particular person or group in a derogatory manner. Michael Richards, famous for the role of Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld, came under fire for his hate speech during a comedy routine in 2006. Richards used several racial epithets and directed his hate language towards African-Americans and Mexicans.[17] Richards apologized for his outbursts, but the damage to his reputation and career was irrevocable. Likewise, using hate speech in any public speaking situation can alienate your audience and take away your credibility, leading to more serious implications for your grade, your job, or other serious outcomes. It is your responsibility as the speaker to be aware of sensitive material and be able to navigate language choices to avoid offending your audience.

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world. – Robin Williams

Raise Social Awareness

Speakers should consider it their ethical responsibility to educate listeners by introducing ideas of racial, gender, or cultural diversity, but also by raising social awareness, or the recognition of important issues that affect societies. Raising social awareness is a task for ethical speakers because educating peers on important causes empowers others to make a positive change in the world. Many times when you present a speech, you have the opportunity to raise awareness about growing social issues. For example, if you’re asked to present an informative speech to your classmates, you could tell them about your school’s athletic tradition or you could discuss Peace One Day—a campaign that promotes a single day of worldwide cease-fire, allowing crucial food and medicine supplies to be shipped into warzone areas.[18] If your assignment is to present a persuasive speech, you could look at the assignment as an opportunity to convince your classmates to (a) stop texting while they drive, (b) participate in a program that supports US troops by writing personal letters to deployed soldiers or (c) buy a pair of TOMS ( and find other ways to provide basic needs to impoverished families around the world. Of course, those are just a few ideas for how an informative or persuasive speech can be used to raise awareness about current social issues. It is your responsibility, as a person and speaker, to share information that provides knowledge or activates your audience toward the common good.[19]

One way to be successful in attaining your speech goal while also remaining ethical is to consider your audience’s moral base. Moon identifies a principle that allows the speaker to justify his or her perspective by finding common moral ground with the audience.[20] This illustrates to the audience that you have goodwill but allows you to still use your moral base as a guide for responsible speech use. For example, even though you are a vegetarian and believe that killing animals for food is murder, you know that the majority of your audience does not feel the same way. Rather than focusing on this argument, you decide to use Moon’s principle and focus on animal cruelty. By highlighting the inhumane ways that animals are raised for food, you appeal to the audience’s moral frame that abusing animals is wrong—something that you and your audience can both agree upon.

If we lose love and self-respect for each other, this is how we finally die. – Maya Angelou

Employ Respectful Free Speech

We live in a nation that values freedom of speech. Of course, due to the First Amendment, you have the right and ability to voice your opinions and values to an audience. However, that freedom of speech must be balanced with your responsibility as a speaker to respect your audience. Offending or degrading the values of your audience members will not inform or persuade them. For example, let’s say you want to give a persuasive speech on why abortion is morally wrong. It’s your right to voice that opinion. Nevertheless, it’s important that you build your case without offending your audience members— since you don’t know everyone’s history or stance on the subject. Showing disturbing pictures on your visual aid may not “make your point” in the way you intended. Instead, these pictures may send audience members into an emotional tailspin (making it difficult for them to hear your persuasive points because of their own psychological noise). Freedom of speech is a beautiful American value, but ethical speakers must learn to balance their speech freedom with their obligation to respect each audience member.

Fortunately for serious minds, a bias recognized is a bias sterilized. – Benjamin Haydon

  1. ABC News. (2012, January 25). Albanese accused of plagiarising Hollywood speech. Retrieved from
  2. Cruikshank, B. (2004). Plagiarism: It’s Alive! Texas Library Journal, 80(4), 132–136.
  3. Lucas, S. E. (2001). The art of public speaking (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Shi, L. (2010). Textual appropriation and citing behaviors of university undergraduates. Applied Linguistics, 31(1), 1–24.
  5. O’Neill, M. T. (1980). Plagiarism: Writing Responsibly. Business Communication Quarterly, 43, 34–36.
  6. Stolley, K., & Brizee, A. (2011, August 24). Avoiding plagiarism. Retrieved from
  7. Nine Planets. (2011). The Sun. Retrieved from
  8. Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life. San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Are you at high risk for serious illness from flu? Retrieved from
  10. Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  11. Danoff-Burg, J. (2002). PowerPoint writing guide. Retrieved from
  12. Nolo. (2010). What is fair use? Copyright and fair use, Stanford University Libraries. Retrieved from
  13. Harper, G. K. (2007). Copyright Crash Course. Retrieved from
  14. Driscoll, D. L., & Brizee, A. (2010, July 13). Stereotypes and biased language. Retrieved from
  15. National Communication Association. (1999). NCA credo for ethical communication. Retrieved from
  16. Verderber, R. F., Sellnow, D. D., & Verderber, K. S. (2012). The challenge of effective speaking (15th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  17. Farhi, P. (2006, November 21). ‘Seinfeld’ comic Richards apologizes for racial rant. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
  18. Peace One Day. (n.d.). Introduction. Retrieved from
  19. Mill, J.S. (1987). Utilitarianism. In A. Ryan (Ed.), Utilitarianism and other essays (pp. 272338). New York: Penguin Classics.
  20. Moon, J. D. (1993). Theory, citizenship, and democracy. In G. E. Marcus & R. L. Hanson, Reconsidering the democratic public (pp. 211222). University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.