Communicating Ethically

Ethics is the practice of what’s right, virtuous, or good (Tompkins, 2011, p. 3). You could likely list a few key ethics that you personally hold. You may view violence as unethical, for example. Ethics are also understood and defined in our own communities. Colleges view plagiarism—or representing someone else’s work as our own—as unethical and wrong within the university community (we’ll discuss this in later chapters). As public speakers, ethics is central because you are attempting to influence others.

When preparing for a public speech, there are two key communication ethics questions to consider:

First, am I advocating for information and others in ethical ways? Anytime we communicate, including public speaking, the content should be crafted with truthful and honest information. Ethical advocacy might include:

  • Presenting sound and truthful information while providing credit to external sources
  • Avoiding defamatory speech, or a false statement of fact to damage a person’s character
  • Avoiding hate speech or language directed against someone or a community’s nationality, race, gender, ability, sexuality, religion or citizenship.
  • Avoiding demagogueryor actions that attempt to manipulate by distorting an audience through prejudice and emotion.

Second, am I representing myself in ethical ways? Am I misrepresenting myself? When you ask an individual or a larger audience to listen, you’re asking them to trust not just what you say, but trust who you are. You are establishing credibility—or ethos. Attempts to establish ethical ethos might include:

  • Showing character by, in word and action, demonstrating honesty and integrity.
  • Being prepared.
  • Avoiding misrepresentations of your experience, expertise, or authority.

If we advocate for ideas with reckless disregard for truth, we are communicating in unethical ways. Instead, we can work to become ethical public speakers that communicate information and present ourselves honestly and transparently.

In addition to ethics, there are three additional principles of communication that are central to a deeper understanding of the communication process and, thus, public speaking. We construct public speeches through communication. Below, we’ll outline 3 major considerations about communication that will influence our understanding of ethical public speaking and advocacy: human communication is constitutive, contextual, and cultural.


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