What if we spoke less and listened more? It seems like a silly question to ask in the context of competitive speech and debate, but fortunately for us, in debate it includes a built-in Q&A segment after each constructive speech. Debate is often thought of in terms of argument, counterargument, counter-counterargument, and so on — and it is therefore easy to overlook those three minutes of Q&A after each constructive. However, those six (for LD) or twelve (for TP) minutes may be more important than any speech in the round…
Cross-examination was very much an enigma to me when I first started debating: what on earth am I supposed to do with these three minutes? Are they for building my case or dissolving my opponent’s? Over the years, through coaching and with a lotof practice, I found that CX has three primary purposes. If you master these and have them in mind as you ask and answer questions, you will empower yourself to take the upper hand in nearly every round.
Purpose 1: Solidifying your own case. A common mistake newcomers to debate make is thinking that CX exists primarily to point out flaws in an opponent’s case. In reality, each of cross-examination’s purposes is equally crucial. I’ll cover in later articles how to think about and word questions tailored to this end (these questions can [and should] be prepared in advance), but for now, know that they are critically important. Think about it: wouldn’t it be great if you could get your opponent to agree that your case is correct? Newsflash: you can — if you ask the right questions.
Purpose 2: Deconstructing your opponent’s case. As I hinted at above, I think it a stretch to say that cross-examination has any singular, important-above-all-others purpose. A good CX will include elements of all three of CX’s primary goals, and deconstructing — or more accurately, setting yourself up to deconstruct in rebuttal — your opponent’s argumentation is obviously important when it comes to winning debates. Unlike in Purpose 1, these questions usually cannot be prepared beforehand, because you need to know what your opponent is running before you can ask questions about it. However, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, which I will cover in more depth in a later post.
Purpose 3: Finding common ground.I know I just said that cross-examination doesn’t have one all-important goal, but if it did, this would be it. As I said, a goodCX should include all three, but if nothing else, you must establish some common ground. These are questions like, “We can agree that there’s a moral obligation to protect human rights, correct?”or, “We agree, don’t we, that the World Trade Organization lowers trade barriers between member nations?” Debate isn’t about disagreeing with one’s opponent on everything and trying to bash them into the ground on as many points as possible. Rather, it’s about determining which points are actual, reasonable points of contention, and then arguing those. When everything is a point of contention, the important arguments are lost in a deluge of rhetoric. Finding common ground is a critical jumping off point for a superior debate round, and CX is where 99 percent of common ground is established.
One final question we need to answer: how does a good cross-examination allow you to take the upper hand in your rounds? The answer comes from the three purposes of CX. When a judge casts their ballot, they really need something to vote for. I’ve found it’s important not just to give your judge something to vote against(i.e., your opponent’s case), but also to give them something that they feel they can hang their hat on, something for them to stand for as they mark their ballot. That’s your case. CX is a great time to solidify your arguments, and when paired with solid rebuttal, sets your case in stone in the judge’s mind. Likewise, giving your judge reasons to vote against your opponent’s case is critical. Once again, CX is the key to getting information and/or admission from your opponent that will allow you to make those arguments in rebuttal. Though I think it’s often overlooked, finding common ground is so important — it allows you to debate what actually needs to be debated. When debaters find no common ground, that’s when you get those weird ballots back with seemingly random RFDs. Though we debaters tend to laugh at such ballots or get angry at the judge, it’s almost always our fault: without common ground, you cannot possibly hope to impact the important points in the round, and they’ll be lost in a landslide of other argumentation.
Each of cross-examination’s purposes yields mighty fruit in the debate round. Don’t make the mistake that I did early on; don’t overlook CX or decide that it isn’t as important as the speeches. In many cases (no pun intended), CX is the key to the round and the foundation for your rebuttals. Happy debating!
***A final word: note that under Purpose 2 – I said deconstructing your opponent’s case. That is, CX is for deconstructing your opponent’s, not your opponents. Punctuation saves lives, as they say; in this case, it saves relationships. CX is for taking apart arguments, not people. Always treat your opponent with respect, no matter what; treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
Samuel Hand was born and raised in the Raleigh, NC area and competed for five years in Speech and Debate. After a year of speech-only participation, he embarked on what would become a four-year Lincoln-Douglas journey. He competed in all categories of speech (limited preparation, platform, and interpretative), and was a member of NCFCA’s pilot moot court program, placing 4th with partner Noah McKay at the 2017 National Championship. Samuel has earned 1st-place rankings at multiple national-level tournaments in both speech and debate in NCFCA and NSDA competition, and has coached several debaters who have succeeded at regional and national levels. “Communication is an art that requires constant, intentional effort to refine — never forget that excellence requires effort, and never forget Whom you do this for.”