Although there are different opinions regarding the real role of the Sophists in Greek society, the most accepted tenet is that they represent a group of common thinkers and professors (not in the modern sense but in the sense of speaking to the masses) who operate in the same manner of fashion as, for example, a comedy troupe, a group of troubadours, or a fraternity. In their case, they were public speakers and teachers who were well-trained in semantics and experts in the arts of citing evidence.
Sophists are often men hired to conduct oratories, lessons, or speeches in a similar way as the modern day Toastmasters would do. They could also be compared to the best legal "dream teams", law professors, and philosophy debaters of their generation. Maybe even a champion debate team. They are true and hardcore debaters.
Yet, they are indeed famous for being quite gifted at their craft. Not only do they have total control of the spoken word, but they also suceed in quoting excerpts from written works, messages from the gods, and other facts that would serve as perfect documentation and evidence to the points they debated about. All this, they do for the sake of the art of debating. This is their true passion.
Although their philosophical goal seems complex, the fact is that a Sophist basically worships common sense, the use of knowledge for productive purposes, and the retrieval of information for the purpose of evidence. It is the most purist way to use intelligence in all of its manifestations: As current knowledge, as the capacity for acquiring knowledge, and as the power of summoning knowledge.
As a final thought, Sophists are also the raconteurs of their time. They literally talk and write a lot of witticisms and paradoxes. Socrates detested them and considered them as mere talkers. This is interesting, considering that Socrates was , himself, a talker and professor. However, the difference between a sophist and a philosophist is their ideal goal: The sophist looks for a solution while the philosopher questions. The sophist wants an answer while the philosopher believes that curiosity leads to even more conundrums. It is understandable why the two would detest each other.
A few corrections to 2nd post:
"Sophists are often men hired to conduct oratories, lessons, or speeches in a similar way as the modern day Toastmasters would do."
No. They sometimes worked as logographers (writing speeches others would give at court) or performed at festivals (unpaid, as a form of self-advertisement), but their income derived from offering courses of instruction for which students paid high fees.
"... who operate in the same manner of fashion as, for example, a comedy troupe, a group of troubadours, or a fraternity. In their case, they were public speakers and teachers who were well-trained in semantics and experts in the arts of citing evidence."
1. They did not work as a troup or fraternity at all. Nor were they hired performers.
2. Some of the Older Sophists were experts in semantics (Prodicus and maybe Protagoras); others were not.
3. They were not involved in "citing evidence" at all -- that would have been "atechne pistis" which is outside the art of rhetoric. Instead, many of them were skilled in arguing from eikos (inherent credibility) or logic (formal validity rather than material correctness).
" ...but they also suceed in quoting excerpts from written works, messages from the gods, and other facts that would serve as perfect documentation and evidence to the points they debated about. All this, they do for the sake of the art of debating. This is their true passion."
Although some would take questions from the audience, only the eristics and philosophers were debaters; Gorgias was known not for debate but long speeches (see Plato's Gorgias). Sophists (and everyone else) would quote from the poets (especially Homer and Hesiod) -- but on the basis normally of oral memory (private silent reading was rare at this period). Messages from the gods? Sophists cited oracles infrequently, and were not hermeneuts by trade.
The Older Sophists were a group of teachers who travelled around Greece teaching the art of public speaking. Their name derives from the Greek term "sophos", or "wise", and they generally claimed to have sufficient wisdom to speak well on all subjects and teach others to do so due to their systematic knowledge of rhetoric, the art of speaking persuasively about matters of general interest. They were the first tertiary instructors in ancient Greece. Beyond being professional tertiary instructors, there is little evidence that figures as diverse as Prodicus, Gorgias, Hippias, Protagoras, and Anaximines (author of the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum) had any consistent ideology in common. Very few of their works have been preserved; we know of them mainly from accounts in later writers.
In the second century AD, there was a revival of sophistic, in the form of an art of display oratory combined with tertiary instruction in the art of declamation. The most famous account of this movement is Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists. We have preserved a massive amount of orations, handbooks, letters, and other materials from sophists and rhetoricians of the 2nd through 6th centuries AD.