Introduction to Evolutions of Public Speaking

The following section is a whirlwind tour of some of the key moments and figures in the evolution of public speaking in various cultures throughout the world. It goes almost without saying that this topic is so vast that any survey would be hopelessly superficial, leaving out far more material than it can include.

The historical figures and events featured here were chosen to draw attention to the main point of this section: that public speaking isn’t just a spontaneous act of communication, but rather always occurs within the context of certain guidelines and expectations. These guidelines are sometimes stated explicitly, or codified, as a set of instructions for speakers (like the one you’re reading now), but they can also represent the general expectations of a particular audience in a particular time and place. Are you persuaded by speeches with lots of facts and figures or ones with vivid imagery? Do you prefer straight talk or complicated metaphors and figures of speech? Is it important that the speaker tells the truth or that they tell a good story? All these criteria are shaped by the culture and time period in which you live.

The purpose of this section isn’t to offer a complete history of public speaking from prehistory to the present, but rather to encourage you to think about public speech in historical and cultural context.

Our current ideas about public speaking—the ideas you’re learning about in this class—are the products of thousands of years of development and have their roots in cultures throughout the world. While some ideas stayed relatively stable across time and throughout the world, like the importance of honesty in public speech, others created productive tension that continues to this day.

The history of public speaking, like the current state of public speaking, is one of diversity, encounter, and exchange.