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What Are Rhetorical Exercises?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

Rhetorical exercises are forms of training used to prepare students to practically apply rhetorical skills in public speaking, debate, persuasion, politics, or other fields in which rhetoric can be useful. Such exercises have been in use in a variety of cultures since the late classical period of history, and variations of them are still used in modern education. Rhetorical exercises have traditionally been divided into two main categories: progymnasmata and gymnasmata. Progymnasmata are exercises intended to bring about familiarity with the various facets of rhetoric by prompting the student to prepare compositions on various topics. The gymnasmata are practice speeches that give students the opportunity to practice delivering organized orations on various topics to audiences.

The progymnasmata are comprised of a variety of different categories of written rhetorical exercises through which students are expected to work. These rhetorical exercises include composing narratives, refutations, comparisons, impersonations, and several other types of compositions. There are traditionally 14 different progymnasmata that are intended to give a broad overview of the different aspects of rhetoric, but different rhetorical schools will choose to use different numbers of exercises. Ideally, such exercises should give the students of rhetoric the confidence, knowledge, and experience to use the different practiced methods of discourse in their practice writings and, later, in practical rhetorical work.

A boy giving a speech.
A boy giving a speech.

Gymnasmata, or practice speeches, are rhetorical exercises that prepare students for the often-dynamic process of actually delivering speeches to an audience. Crafting a composition differs greatly from actually delivering a speech to a live audience. The gymnasmata exercises allow students to practice the various elements of rhetoric that extend beyond basic composition, such as body language and tone. Such rhetorical exercises may also give students the chance to dynamically respond to opposition and to engage in debates. These situations require the student to be able to think quickly, often without access to notes or other resources, in order to respond to rhetorical challenges.

Rhetorical skills are helpful in a debate.
Rhetorical skills are helpful in a debate.

An effective course of rhetorical exercises should equip the student of rhetoric with the skills needed to speak clearly and persuasively about almost any topic. Rhetoricians are, in fact, sometimes criticized for placing skill in persuasion over serious consideration for the topics being discussed. Many rhetorical exercises require students to argue both sides of a given issue regardless of personal convictions. This prepares students to argue assigned topics in formal debates and prompts them to closely examine both positions of an issue before delivering a serious oration on it.

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Discussion Comments


@ceilingcat - Even if you didn't enjoy it, I still think having students give speeches spontaneously is good practice for the working world. You never know when you might be put on the spot and have to address a group of people to support your opinion.


When I took speech class in college, we did gymnasmata. We were given a topic and expected to quickly form an opinion and give a speech on it.

This was pretty much a nightmare for me. I can think on my feet fairly well, but I hate public speaking. I always got really low scores on these because I would stumble over my words so much. I was so glad when that class was over.


@recapitulate- I know what you are talking about, and I studied a lot of Socrates' speeches in college. I was a teacher for awhile, and that form of rhetoric is especially useful in the classroom. It gets students to think on their feet, and keeps you from just spoon feeding answers to kids.


The other day I was talking with some people about rhetoric in the Bible. In many stories, Jesus uses something close to the Socratic method, where he answers a question with another, more specific question.

I think this is a valuable technique to know how to use, regardless of your views of the Bible. It helps you to keep thinking about a subject and can get everyone in a discussion to keep thinking.

Admittedly, it also works well during arguments.


@ddljohn-- I know what you mean! I remember that I took a class on Law and Politics when I was in college and there were many students in that class that were preparing to go to Law School. You could point them out easily from how they could make arguments for and against an issue.

I remember that once, the professor put a pre-law student on the spot asked him to make a persuasive argument in support of a topic and then against it. He was able to do both one after another and really well. I remember thinking to myself that this student was made for this stuff.

I agree that some people naturally have a talent for speech and writing different kinds of rhetoric. But I also think that it can be developed and improved over time with practice. That's why the exercises we have to do starting from elementary school throughout college are so essential.


I had to give many speeches in High School, but not very many in college, thankfully. I don't mind rhetorical exercises but I'm not very good at them because I get very nervous and this affects my speech.

I've had peers though that were really good at giving speeches. They never got nervous and never forgot what they have to say. I think rhetorical exercises are good for us to practice speaking in public. In the least, it will be beneficial when the time comes to apply to jobs and give interviews in front of people or talk in front of a group for events and meetings.

I'm still not extremely good at speeches. I still do get a little nervous, but I'm doing much better than I used to. Even though I hated doing them in school, rhetorical exercises have clearly helped me.

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    • A boy giving a speech.
      By: auleena
      A boy giving a speech.
    • Rhetorical skills are helpful in a debate.
      By: James Steidl
      Rhetorical skills are helpful in a debate.