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.
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.
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.