STS – 2015 June – History of Our Profession Series

Persuasion of the Speaker Rules the World
Joseph Sherren, CSP, HoF, CSPGlobal

In the ancient city-state of Athens, Greece, public speaking was a central part of everyday life. Athenians placed great importance on the art of public speaking, specifically persuasive rhetorical speech, which was used to sway public opinion and implement political reform.

Orators who excelled at the craft of speaking and had expertise in a specific domain of knowledge were known as sophists, from the Greek words sophos or sophia, meaning ‘wise’ or ‘wisdom’.  The word  ‘poet’ was a term synonymous with sophist.  Poets were considered the official teachers of society so a sophist was a person who taught through the performance of prose works or speeches that impart practical knowledge.

Sophists were road warrior, public speaking teachers who believed anyone, regardless of natural ability, could benefit from speech instruction. They would trek from city to city offering their paid services of public performance, speech writing and instruction in argumentation and style.  Sophists believed that human knowledge could not be certain due to the subjectivity of the senses. The closest humans could come to certainty was probable knowledge, which was reached through rationale debate.

Public speaking became a highly valuable skill as social mobility depended, in large part, on one’s ability to be a persuasive speaker.  In Athens, having the power to sway the public could potentially defuse the privileges of status and bloodline. Citizens could gain office, prevail in lawsuits, and aid in the adoption or rejection of a proposed decree. In order to succeed in each of these situations, all one needed to be, at least in principle, was an effective public speaker. It was in every citizen’s interest to learn the art of persuasive public speaking, and thus, training to be an effective speaker was in high demand. Some created a business of teaching other sophists as their primary source of income.  Due to the importance of such skills in Athens, practitioners could often command very high fees.  

Success of the sophist was dependent on the following:

  1. Their Ethos (Credibility). We tend to believe people whom we respect. One of the central problems of a speech is to project an impression to the audience that you are someone worth listening to, in other words making yourself an authority on the subject, as well as someone who is likable and worthy of respect. 

  2. Their Pathos (Emotional). We can look at speeches (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen” “I have a dream”, “Ask Not”) to see how pathos, emotional appeals, are used to persuade. Language choice affects the audience's emotional response, and emotional appeal can effectively be used to enhance a moving speech.
  3. Their Logos (Logical).  To convince by the use of reasoning may be the most important technique to study, and Aristotle's favorite.  It looks at deductive and inductive reasoning, and decides what makes an effective, persuasive reason to back up your claims. Giving sound reasons is the heart of argumentation, and cannot be emphasized enough.

The history of public speaking reaches far back in history and has had a major impact on society.


This article is the second in a three-part series and is adapted by Jeanne Martinson from a series on our profession originally written by Joseph Sherren, CSP, HoF, CSPGlobal.


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