Objectives, Outline, and Introduction

Chapter 3: Ethics in Public Speaking

By Alyssa Millner, Ph.D., King College, Knoxville, TN
& Rachel D. Price, M.A., University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Define ethics and explain why ethics are important in public speaking.
  • Differentiate between morality and ethical dilemma.
  • Identify the three types of plagiarism and understand how to avoid them.
  • Explain how to cite sources in written and oral speech materials.
  • Develop responsible language use by avoiding hate language and using inclusive language.
  • Use a speech platform to promote diversity, raise social awareness, and understand free speech.
  • Employ ethical listening by readying both mind and body to avoid distractions.
  • Develop patterns of ethical feedback through praise and constructive criticism.
  • Apply ethical communication skills to public speaking situations.
  • Apply module concepts in final questions and activities.

Chapter Outline

  • Introduction
  • Defining Ethics
    • Ethics and Ethical Standards
  • Ethical Speaking
    • Be honest and avoid plagiarism
    • Cite sources properly
    • Set responsible speech goals
  • Ethical Listening
    • Develop ethical listening skills
    • Provide ethical feedback
  • Conclusion
  • Review Questions and Activities
  • Glossary
  • References

Maggie is helping her older sister plan for her wedding. She loves event planning and decides to give an informative speech to her classmates on “Selecting a Florist.” She knows all the other women in class will adore the topic and her visual aids (an assortment of flowers and a rose for everyone to take home). As Maggie begins the speech, she creates a listener relevance link that relates mostly to the women in the class. In fact, most of the speech is directed at female listeners. 

wedding boquet

“Wedding Bouquet” by Ling Manh Nguyen Tran. CC-BY.

As she moves through the main points of her speech, Maggie realizes that she is running out of time and only has 1 minute left or the instructor will penalize her.  During her third main point, she skips over some citations but shares the statistics of saving money on a trustworthy florist. The listeners don’t notice that Maggie neglected to provide oral source citations, so she feels confident of the “expertise” she has derived. After Maggie finishes her final main point, she concludes and reminds the ladies to find her later if they have any questions about prices of quality of florists in the area. 

When preparing for this speech, Maggie attempted an audience analysis. However, she failed to adequately involve all audience members by choosing a traditionally female topic and tailoring the language to females in the class. A second unethical decision made by Maggie was to omit oral citations, thereby failing to give credit to those who deserved it. Maggie’s practices in her speech are just a few ways in which unethical public speaking can occur. The evolution of ethics is central to public speaking because it is through communication that our ideas about right and wrong or good and bad are formed.

Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do. – Potter Stewart

Issues related to honesty, integrity, and morality are present in our everyday lives. We recognize the need for ethical communication when leaders make deceitful statements. For instance, we all remember President Clinton’s famous quote: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” We recognize a crafty speaker when we hear one. Ethics, however, aren’t just important for presidents and other public figures. Ethical concerns arise in a variety of public speaking contexts, as this chapter portrays.

The National Communication Association (NCA) suggests that communicators should be committed to following principles of ethical communication. The NCA Credo of Ethical Communication claims that “ethical communication is fundamental to responsible thinking, decision making, and the development of relationships and communities within and across contexts, cultures, channels, and media.”[1] Ethical communication also yields positive outcomes, such as truthfulness, respect, and accuracy of information. You can see that ethics is a very important part of the communication process. Likewise, it is an important part of the public speaking process.

Unethical communication can lead to poor decision-making or a lack of respect for self and others, and threaten the well-being of individuals and society. Early scholars of ethical communication, most notably Nielsen[2] and Johannesen[3] began to incorporate a discussion of ethics in all aspects of communication. These forerunners began exploring ethics in the area of public speaking. Communication experts agree that ethical communication is an important responsibility of the speaker.

  1. National Communication Association. (1999). NCA credo for ethical communication. Retrieved from http://www.natcom.org/uploaded%20Files/About_NCA/Leadership_and_Governance/Public_Policy_Platform/PDF-PolicyPlatformNCA_Credo_for_Ethical_Communication.pdf
  2. Nielsen, T. R. (1966). Ethics of speech communication. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs Merrill.
  3. Johannesen, R. L. (1967). Ethics and persuasion: Selected readings. New York: Random House.