This post is the first in a series on cross-examination. Part 2 will cover “Catch 22” questions and Part 3 will explore the “Storytelling” strategy. Stay tuned!

One way great debaters set themselves apart is in their use of cross-examination time. In this post, I’ll share some tips for how you can take your cross-examination to the next level.

The Basics

Most readers probably know there are some ways to lose a cross-examination. When you’re supposed to be asking questions, make sure you don’t:

–        Be abusive

–        Make arguments

–        Ask open-ended questions that let the opponent ramble on for an indeterminate amount of time

Instead, do:

–        Be assertive

–        Ask questions

–        Only allow definite and brief answers

I remember once I got those fundamentals down, there was a period where I focused on trying to make sure I could always fill my three minutes of question time. And while that focus may help you survive the cross-examination, it’s YOUR cross-examination—you should be thriving. Instead of just trying to fill the time, your goal should be to aid your arguments during your other speeches. So let’s consider three ways your cross-examination questions can help your team build arguments for your speeches.

Fact-finding Questions

This type of question seeks a particular, factual piece of information. It shouldn’t take long, but it can perform two essential purposes. First, it can set up an argument you intend to make in your next speech. Let’s say that you plan to respond to your opponents’ argument, but your response requires a factual link. Let’s say you normally read a card to establish this link, but you can get your opponent to give the fact in the cross-examination. That means you save yourself time in the speech. As an added bonus, your link is harder to challenge, since your opponents established it for you. Another benefit is it gives the judge more time to process the argument. Asking a question in cross-examination that implies what you might argue in your next speech gives the judge all of prep time to get ready to hear that argument. We can see all three of these in some (hypothetical) examples:

Example 1

The Affirmative case involves closing Guantanamo Bay and transferring all the prisoners to the U.S. The Negative team asks how many additional terrorists have been caught using information gathered from prisoners there. The Affirmative speaker can either give an answer (which they likely know) or plead ignorance. The Negative speaker is setting her partner up to argue that the Affirmative plan will lead to “Many Lives Lost.” If the Affirmative speaker answers correctly, the Negative is saved the trouble of reading a card, and the Affirmative can’t really challenge that number, since they provided it. If the Affirmative answers incorrectly or pleads ignorance, the Negative still has to read a card, but still foreshadows the argument to the judge and gains credibility on that point over the Affirmative.

Example 2

The Negative team reads a card to support their argument that the Affirmative plan to increase military presence in the Persian Gulf region will irreparably damage the wildlife there. The Affirmative team recognizes the source (they should usually recognize the sources Negative teams use against them). The Affirmative speaker asks in cross-examination, “You based your environmental degradation point on a source. I just wanted to clarify, that was Jane Doe?” The Negative responds, “Yes, she is vice president of activism for the Near East Ecological Defenders (NEED).” [As far as I am aware, this is not a real group]. The Affirmative team then says in their next speech, “The Negative team said in cross-examination that Jane Doe is the vice president of activism for NEED. What they didn’t say is that NEED has been implicated in numerous instances of ecoterrorism, and that three countries have issued warrants for the apprehension of Ms. Doe.” Then the Affirmative speaker reads a card to that effect. His partner’s assist in cross-examination set up a slam-dunk source critique.

The second use of fact-finding questions is to get the other team to clarify their position. Some teams like to be vague so that they can slide away from specific attacks after the fact. Alternatively, it could be a genuine error, but even then you don’t want to gamble on getting the details right if you will base a minutes-long argument on them. So clarify the other team’s position beforehand. Sometimes, as in the first example above, this clarification is useful when probing for specific facts, if for no other reason than that you can contradict a statistic once it has been made clear.

Be on the lookout for more practical tips in Next-Level Cross Examination, Part 2! 

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