Ethics in Public Speaking

What to consider when you wield the power of speech.

Words are power. Ethics in public speaking are important because of the tremendous influence one can exert with words alone. Consider Hitler - his speeches began some of the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen. Consider these 7 ethical points in preparing your speeches.

  • Don't plagarize. If someone else said it, tell your audience that they said it. Give credit where credit is due.
  • Never mislead. Perhaps the clearest of ethical points, even this can get murky sometimes. Misrepresenting statistics is an obvious twist of the truth, but what about not mentioning minor product defects? You'll always have to use your judgement, but never, ever intentionally mislead an audience.
  • Prepare well. Not only will preparing well improve your speech, good preparation is also an ethical necessity. Without adequate research, it's easy to unintentionally distort the truth. Look into all facts and statistics; assess all claims for their validity. Prepare so that you can adequately answer any questions that your audience may have. Record your sources and be ready to give them if asked.
  • Use sound reasoning. It's easy to make illogical and unsound things sound good with pretty turns-of-phrase. Don't do it. Support your claims with evidence and clear logic.
  • Tell the whole story. "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again" (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism).
  • Consider the consequence. What will the consequences of your speech be? Even if everything you say is complete and true, consequences still matter. Telling one person that they could get an extra line of credit might open up new business opportunities; telling another might lead to his bankruptcy.
  • Respect yourself. Don't try to defend something you don't believe in. Be consistent with your own beliefs.
  • Respect your audience. Don't try to fool them. Don't ever speak down to them. Avoid racial slurs, ethnic jokes, and other potentially offensive content.

Above all, do what feels right. If you don't feel comfortable with something, don't do it. If it doesn't pass strict ethical muster, don't do it. Understanding ethics in public speaking isn't hard: if it's right, do it; if it's wrong, don't.

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