Chapter 3: Ethics in Public Speaking

3.1 – Ethical Stances on Public Speaking

A public speaker, whether delivering a speech in a classroom, board room, civic meeting, or in any other venue, must uphold certain ethical standards. These standards will allow the audience to make informed choices, to view the speaker as a credible source of information, and to avoid repercussions of bad ethical choices.

Ethics refers to the branch of philosophy that involves determinations of what is right and moral. On a personal level, ethics are your own standard of what you should and should not do in the various situations or in all situations. Although ethics are based on personal decisions and values, they are also influenced by factors outside of you. We will look at various ways ethics, particularly ethics related to speech, have been thought about. Determine how you would explain your own ethical standard for communication. Along with being able to articulate what you would not do, you should have an appreciation for why behaving ethically is important to you.

One of “right things” and most important ways that we speak ethically is to use material from others correctly. Occasionally, in the news media, we hear about a political speaker who uses the words of other speakers without attribution or of scholars who use pages out of another scholar’s work without consent or citation. Usually the discussion of plagiarism stays within the community where it occurred, but there is still damage done to the “borrower’s” reputation as an ethical person and scholar.

Why does it matter if a speaker or writer commits plagiarism? Why and how do we judge a speaker as ethical? Why, for example, do we value originality and correct citation of sources in public life, as well as in the academic world, especially in the North American context? These are not new questions and some of the answers lie in age-old philosophies of communication.

3.2 – Credibility and Ethics

When Aristotle used the term ethos in the 5th century B.C.E. to describe one of the means of persuasion, he defined it as the “wisdom, sagacity, and character of the rhetor.” Modern scholars of communication and persuasion speak more about “credibility” as an attitude the audience has toward the speaker, based on both reality and perception, rather than an innate trait of the speaker. Audience members trust the speaker to varying degrees, based on the evidence and knowledge they have about the speaker and how that lines up with certain factors:

  • Similarity: does the speaker have experiences, values, and beliefs in common with the audience? Can the audience relate to the speaker because of these commonalities?
  • Character: does the speaker, in word and action, in the speech and in everyday life, show honesty and integrity?
  • Competence: does the speaker show that they have expertise and sound knowledge about the topic, especially through firsthand experience?
  • Good will: does the audience perceive the speaker to have ethical intentions toward the audience?

Understandably, the same speaker will have a different level of credibility with different audiences. However, these groups express their values in different ways. When trying to develop your own credibility as a speaker with an audience, you have to keep in mind all four of the factors listed above. Any attempt to portray yourself as “similar” to the audience through deception or without authenticity will undermine your credibility in the long run. To only pretend to have good will and want the best for the audience will also have a short-term effect. And to intentionally misrepresent your background, such as experience and credentials, is clearly unethical.

3.3 – Plagiarism

Although there are many ways that you could undermine your ethical stance before an audience, the one that stands out and is committed most commonly in academic contexts is plagiarism. A dictionary definition of plagiarism would be “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). Plagiarism also includes the following actions:

  • Turning in someone else’s work as your own;
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit;
  • Failing to put quotation marks around an exact quotation correctly;
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation;
  • Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit;
  • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not.

In the business or professional world, plagiarism is never tolerated because using original work without permission (which usually includes paying fees to the author or artist) can end in serious legal action. The Internet has made plagiarism easier and thus increased the student’s responsibility to know how to cite and use source material correctly. (But bless the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License that made this Open Educational Resource textbook possible, legal, and free for students!)

Ethically Crediting Sources

In using source material correctly, a speaker takes three steps:

  1. The speaker clearly cites the source of the information. It is here that the oral mode of communication differs from the written mode. In a paper, such as for literature, you would only need to include a parenthetical citation, such as “(Jones, 2012, p. 78).” A speech is quite different. Saying “According to Jones, 2012, p. 78,” really does very little for the audience. They can’t turn to the back of the paper. They don’t have a way, other than oral communication, to understand the type of information being cited, how recent it is, the credibility of the author you are citing and why you think they are a valid source, or the title of the work. In a speech, giving more complete information would help the audience understand its value. The page number, the publishing company, and city it was published in are probably not important, but what is important is whether it is a website, a scholarly article, or a book; whether it was written in 1950 or 2010; and what is the position, background, or credentials of the source. So, instead of “According to Jones, p. 78,” a better approach would be, “According to Dr. Samuel Jones, Head of Cardiology at Vanderbilt University, in a 2010 article in a prestigious medical journal…”Or“In her 2012 book, The Iraq War in Context, historian Mary Smith of the University of Georgia states that…”Or“In consulting the website for the American Humane Society, I found these statistics about animal abuse compiled by the Society in 2021…”This approach shows more clearly that you have done proper research to support your ideas and arguments. It also allows your audience to find the material if they want more information. Notice that in all three examples the citation precedes the fact or information being cited. This order allows the audience to recognize the borrowed material better. The use of a clear citation up-front makes it more noticeable, as well as more credible, to the audience.
  2. The speaker should take special care to use information that is in context and relevant. This step takes more critical thinking skills. For example, it is often easy to misinterpret statistical information or take a quotation from an expert in one field and apply it to another field. It is also important to label facts as facts and opinions as opinions, especially when dealing with controversial subjects. In addition, be sure you understand the material you are citing before using it. If you are unsure of any words, look their definitions up so you are sure to be using the material as it is intended. Finally, understand the type of publication or source you are using; for example, note the difference between scholarly publications and journalistic stories or somebody’s personal blog.
  3. The speaker should phrase or summarize the ideas of the source into their own words. Paraphrasing, which is putting the words and ideas of others into one’s own authentic or personal language, is often misunderstood by students. Paraphrasing is not changing 10% of the words in a long quotation, but still keeping most of the vocabulary and word order (called syntax) of the source. You should compose the information in your own “voice” or way of expressing yourself.In fact, you would be better off to think in terms of summarizing your source material rather than paraphrasing. For one, you will be less likely to use too much of the original and, therefore, be skirting the edge of plagiarism. Secondly, you will usually want to put the main arguments of a source in your own words and make it shorter.


As mentioned before, students often have not been trained to use source material correctly and plagiarize unintentionally. But, as the old saying goes: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” You will still be held accountable whether you understand or not, so now, early in your college career, is the time you should learn to cite source material correctly in oral and written communication.


This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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Public Speaking for Today's Audiences Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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