Ethics in Public Speaking
I wrote this for the new edition of Essential Elements of Public Speaking, 7th edition (Hoboken, NJ: Pearson, 2021) but I thought it might be useful for any class in public speaking as a way of introducing the dimension of ethics and clarifying what is and what is not plagiarism.
Because your speech will have an effect on your audience, you have an obligation to consider
ethics—issues of right and wrong, or the moral implications of your message. When
you develop your topic, present your research, create persuasive appeals, and do any of
the other tasks related to public speaking, there are ethical issues to be considered (Bok,
1978; Jaksa & Pritchard, 1994; Johannesen, 1996; Neher & Sandin, 2007; Tompkins, 2011).
Think about your own beliefs and respond to the following situations in this quiz,
indicating whether each scenario is ethical or unethical.
1. _____ A speaker talks about evidence supporting the position advocated but omits
contradictory evidence. Or, similarly, a speaker cites testimony and gives the
person’s positive qualifications but omits the person’s negative disqualifications.
2. _____ A speaker reworks a quotation by a famous scientist, say, to support the
3. _____ A speaker uses a visual aid found on the internet.
4. _____ A speaker uses emotional appeals–for example, fear of getting ill or the desire
for status–to persuade an audience.
5. _____ A speaker crops a photo, omitting the part that contradicts the position
6. _____ A speaker uses figures from a poll taken twenty years ago on a fast-changing
topic, but doesn’t mention when the poll was taken.
7. _____ A speaker copies a speech off the internet and presents it as original.
Here are some responses that most writers on and instructors of public speaking
and ethics would likely give. But, not all; some writers, instructors, and students may
disagree with one or all of these responses. All of these issues are raised again and covered
more fully throughout this text.
1. A speaker talks about evidence supporting the position advocated but omits
contradictory evidence. A speaker isn’t obligated to discuss evidence and argument
that does not support his or her position or to identify the negative qualities
of a witness’s testimony. That’s the opponent’s job. But, if the speaker deliberately
conceals relevant details that would influence the audience against the position
advocated, it would be unethical.
2. A speaker reworks a quotation by a famous scientist, say, to support the advocated
position. This would be unethical. Quotations need to be presented in full
and presented with the original intention of the author. However, a speaker may
change a quotation for special effect if it’s identified as such, as in cases of paraphrasing
or adding special emphasis.
3. A speaker uses a visual aid found on the internet. If this is for your class speech
(that is a non-profit, educational activity), it’s generally considered acceptable to
use it if you identify its origin. If you were to profit financially from the speech
with the visual aid, then you would need to secure permission.
4. A speaker uses emotional appeals–for example, fear or the desire for status–
to persuade an audience. Emotional appeals are frequently a large part of public
speaking, and especially persuasive speaking, and there is generally nothing
unethical about using emotional appeals. However, if the speaker uses emotional
appeals to cover up the absence of sound argument and evidence or to undermine
the thought processes of the listeners, then it would be unethical.
5. A speaker crops a photo, omitting the part that contradicts the position advocated.
This would be unethical because the speaker is preventing the audience from seeing
the truth as presented in the entire photo and as the photographer photographed it.
6. A speaker uses figures from a poll taken twenty years ago on a fast-changing
topic, but doesn’t mention when the poll was taken. This would be unethical.
The speaker is deliberately concealing information that is relevant to the audience
thinking clearly and logically about the issue.
7. A speaker copies a speech off the internet and presents it as original. This is clearly
unethical and illustrates one of the most important ethical concepts in all college
courses, plagiarism, a topic discussed in detail in Chapter 5, Researching Your Speech.