Strategies for a More Effective Cross-Examination by Peter Montgomery

“…It is for all these reasons I strongly but respectfully urge an affirmative ballot. Thank you, and I now stand open for cross-examination.”

In the silence that follows your opponent’s final words, you finish shuffling your papers around on your canary yellow legal pad, take one final swig from your trusty water bottle, and then with a deep breath, stand up and approach your adversary at the podium, being careful to avoid making eye contact.

You set your timepiece for three minutes, take one final glance around to check if your opponent and judges are ready, then with an earsplitting beep, you activate your timepiece and start the countdown, a wide smile appearing on your face.

“Hi, that was a great speech, but of course as always I’ve got a couple questions for you today, starting with…”

If you’ve ever participated in any form of debate that has cross-examination, this situation, or one very similar to it, should be familiar to you. Starting off cross-examination this way seems natural. After all, you want to appear friendly to the judge, and you’ve seen other experienced debaters follow this same pattern. What could possibly be wrong with this approach? Quite a bit, it turns out.

In this article, we will be examining some common cross-ex tactics and pressure-testing them with alternative options to see if they really deserve the spot they have secured in the hearts and minds of debaters.

If you haven’t realized by this point, cross-examination is the most important part of the debate round. This is the only time the judges can compare you and your opponent side by side. Barring some extreme examples, whoever wins the cross-examinations wins the debate round.

So, why are there so many mediocre cross-examinations even at the national level? Well, for one, cross-ex is often breezed over by clubs in their debate curriculum. It’s usually taught as, “ask your opponent sneaky questions to get them to agree to your side.” But if you’re paired with anyone who knows what they’re doing, you probably won’t get a concession out of them so easily. I’ll get into this one later in the article.

To start off, let’s look at the case I’ve outlined above. Throughout my time competing in, judging, and coaching debate, I’ve noticed that the vast majority of cross-examinations begin with this or a similar scenario.  Now, there is nothing inherently incorrect or uncivil in this approach. There just happens to be a better alternative. Consider the following two options:

Option 1: (timer starts) “Hi, I’ve got a couple questions for you today, starting with: Which is more important, saving lives or saving money?”

Option 2: (timer starts) “Which is more important, saving lives or saving money?”

Notice how the first option takes up several seconds with filler words whereas the second jumps straight into the question. As the negative, this is even more critical.

Your first impression with the judges is not a pre-written and memorized speech that you’ve been working on since the resolution was announced in June. Your first impression is whatever comes out of your mouth in the first few seconds after you start that timepiece for cross-examination. You only have one chance to make a good first impression and adding a bunch of filler words to try to sound friendly and amiable isn’t going to do it.

Start off with a powerful, pointed question. Someone who can begin their cross-ex with a bold, forced-choice question is going to exude confidence and conviction regardless of whether or not you’ve given a speech to the judge yet. And anyway, you can show the judge through your conduct, rather than a canned intro, that you’re a friendly and respectful person.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Great! All I need to do is have one great question, and if I start with that, the judge will like me, and I’ll win.” Not so fast. First impressions are super important, but if the judge has come to expect you to be confident and charismatic, you can’t just toss that to the wayside for the rest of your three minutes. Once you’ve got momentum, it’s easier to keep it going, but you’ve got to keep it going nonetheless.

Obviously, you can’t just throw canned questions at your opponent for three minutes and hope they’re mostly relevant to their case. Not at all. The best cross-examinations are those which impact directly to the clash at hand. But, as I said before, you can’t just go ahead and try to get your opponent to admit they’re wrong point-blank. Cross-ex is not a full-out war in broad daylight. It’s an infiltration mission in the dead of night.

Now, how do you go about getting the answers you want without your opponent realizing it? Well, there are three techniques I’ve found to be effective.

Technique 1: Attack Hidden Premises

Most of the time, we want to make a beeline straight for our opponent’s value, strap some dynamite to it, light it up, and watch the fireworks. However, ninety-nine percent of the time this is a singularly ineffective strategy.

Your opponents are in the same position as you. They’ve been preparing for the debate season for months like you. They’ve poked holes in their cases and patched them up like you. They’ll know right away when you’re attacking their value and use one of their many prepared arguments in response. They’ll end up wasting your precious cross-ex time and strengthening their points at that. Instead, you need to take a more subtle approach.

All arguments are structured as a combination of premises and conclusions. Since conclusions are dependent on premises, the trick here is to find your opponent’s hidden premises and refute those. For example, say your opponent makes the following argument: “The purpose of innovation is to create new products. Since the proactionary principle creates new products faster it should be valued highest.”

This argument can be deconstructed as the following:

Premise 1: We should always try to create new products

Premise 2: The proactionary principle creates new products

Conclusion: The proactionary principle should be valued highest

We can break this down even further by determining the arguments behind the premises. For example, working backwards from Premise 1 we have:

Premise 1A: We should always try to achieve the goal of innovation

Premise 1B: Creating new products is the goal of innovation

Conclusion (AKA Premise 1): We should always try to create new products

Here, Premise 1A is one of the hidden premises of the argument. The affirmative speaker assumes that we should always try to achieve the purpose of innovation. After identifying this hidden premise, think up ways to attack it indirectly. For instance:

Q: Should people engage in illegal activity?

A: No, of course not.

Q: What if that illegal activity would help them achieve their personal goals?

A: It would still be wrong.

You’ve just gotten your opponent to admit that goals are not the only standard for deciding what actions should be taken. Take note of this, and instead of continuing this line of questioning, impact it in your next speech where you will encounter no resistance from your opponent. They’ll never know what hit them.

Technique 2: Ask Questions with Obvious Answers

This might be a strange one at face value, but think of it this way. Your opponent has two options. Either answer the question with the obvious answer, or try to be disagreeable and go for the unconventional answer. An example illustrates this best:

Agreeable Opponent

Q: Is developing new technology important?

A: Yes.

Q: Should we pursue new technology?

A: Of course.

Disagreeable Opponent

Q: Is developing new technology important?

A: No, not really.

Q: (brief pause) So, just to be clear, you don’t think we should ever develop new technology?

A: Well, we should sometimes.

Q: But you still think new technology is unimportant?

A: That’s right.

Either way you get a positive result. In the first case, you get the concessions you want, and in the second, you put your opponent in an awkward position to defend. The key is asking questions that have these two types of answers.

Don’t ask your opponent questions like, “what was your definition of innovation again?” or “could you please repeat the source from your opening quote?” Instead, why not just ask for a copy of their case? Then you can read through it at your leisure during your prep-time and not waste valuable cross-examination time. Cross-examination should be reserved for important questions that will make or break the debate round for you.

Technique 3: The Power of Silence

In the words of English writer and poet Martin Farquhar Tupper, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.” Not every second of your cross-examination must be filled with words. All too often, I hear a transition like: “Interesting, I’ll be addressing that in my speech. Let’s look at your second contention, where you claimed that XYZ. Would you agree that…”

Aside from letting your opponent know exactly what part of their case you’re attacking, this technique adds filler words that make it sound like a regular conversation between two people. That is precisely the situation you want to avoid. Pausing gives you that confident presence judges like to see and puts your opponent on edge, as illustrated in the last line of questioning above. I’ve already talked about this earlier, but really I want to hammer it home.

Silence is a powerful weapon that many debaters fail to utilize. It is always at your disposal and doesn’t take too much practice to get it right.

In conclusion, cross-examination all too often goes to waste through the use of excessive filler words and ineffective questioning tactics. Instead of going into cross-examination full out guns blazing, I would suggest a more subtle approach, one that can be navigated with confidence and ease, and one that will help you to get the type of concessions you have always been after.

Debate is an art form, and cross-examination is one of the most valuable tools available to you in debate. A painter would never try to create a masterpiece without utilizing his highest quality brushes, and a military commander would never keep his best generals on the sidelines. Similarly, the single best and most efficient way to improve in debate is improving your cross-examination skills.

I hope that the knowledge gained in this article will be able to help you do just that.

Peter was a regionally and nationally ranked NCFCA speaker and Lincoln-Douglas debater. Currently, he is pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering and is specifically interested in the development of reusable launch systems for space travel, as well as unmanned aerial systems. His other interests and activities include: flying planes, speech and debate coaching, piano performance, music composition, and tutoring high school and college students. Peter is deeply knowledgeable and experienced in tutoring many subjects, in person and online, including: Math (Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus I-III, and Differential Equations), Science (Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy), as well as Logic, Speech, Debate, and ACT/SAT Prep. Feel free to contact Peter at

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