The Competent Cross-Ex by: Sam Wooddell

It’s nearly impossible to participate in debate without hearing arguments between Team Policy and Lincoln Douglas debaters as to which of their formats constitutes better debate. Though I won’t attempt to make a final decision here, I know one area where, although it pains me to say it, the TP-ers are beat.

In LD, the round is often won or lost in cross examination. A fatal admission after an intense line of questioning can create an argument that, in the next speech, can win the round. But in policy debate, this type of probing style is rarely, if ever, seen. Instead, cross-ex is typically nothing more than a recapitulation of the previous speech. The questioner in TP confirms and clarifies, rather than contending or contradicting.

It is because these sorts of lackadaisical cross examinations devalue policy debate itself that they must end. Now, I don’t mean to say that useless lines of questioning have not been discouraged by parents, coaches, and alumni. Rather, that these entities often fail to fully address the CX style into which many – particularly younger – debaters fall. I have been a part of both formal lectures and casual conversations where I have been told not to “push my opponents over a cliff” during CX. For those unfamiliar with the expression, it means that debaters must never reveal or belabor an argument when questioning their opponent. Instead, the notion goes, one should subtly assemble material for a future speech, concealing the true intent of all questions.

To be honest, this idea can be correct. What is objectionable, though, is the misinterpretation of this message as a condemnation of gaining ground during cross examination. Resisting the urge to completely unveil an idea in CX does not necessitate the dry and unproductive sessions so prevalent in TP today. All too often, judges and onlookers hear questions like, “could you explain your plan again?” and, “what was the idea behind your second solvency?” This serves only to waste valuable time while allowing an opponent to reiterate an already stated idea. These inquiries are only helpful when there is a legitimate misunderstanding in the round. TP debaters can raise their strategic and persuasive levels of expertise by altering the current culture.

Asking challenging questions produces a legitimate strategic advantage. Rather than fully exposing an argument in CX, or introducing one without warning in a speech, the perfect medium rests in a methodical CX. Instead of summarizing the previous speech, debaters should work through every argument, casting doubt on their opponents’ logical reasoning or evidence. While you should not start arguing with specific detail in CX, you can and should make it an offensive weapon for your views. When done correctly, this method not only immediately introduces doubt into the judge’s mind, it also gives you the opportunity to strategically trap your opponent.

For example, one of my favorite tactics in CX is preparing for a piece of evidence your opponent is not expecting. Let’s say your opponent is trying to pass a bill that sends food aid to Ethiopia. Let’s also assume you have a piece of evidence stating that the corrupt Ethiopian government often steals or misuses foreign aid. At first, you might be tempted to ask your opponent a question about corruption in government, but keep in mind that you would then reveal the direction of your argument. Instead, casually ask your opponent to confirm that their plan will be executed through the government. When they confirm, it means you have perfectly prepared your argument, and also given the other team no chance to address it in CX. This type of question establishes winning arguments.

Walking the line between overt revelation and mere confirmation also has a tangible impact on the judge. Remember that persuasion tactics most definitely influence a conflicted or inexperienced judge. A particularly powerful rhetorical twist is using your opponents’ exact words from CX in your speech. To refer to the previous example, say your opponents answered your question concerning food aid by saying, “aid will be provided through the Ethiopian government.” In that case, you can read your evidence in the next speech condemning that government, which provides a disadvantage against your opponents’ case. You can use the exact same phrasing, and argue that the aid will never get “through the Ethiopian government”, as your opponent said. This is a specific refutation of an argument, backed up with evidence, that will always be convincing and accurate. It is also the most efficient way to spend the crucial three minutes that are constitute cross examination.

Yes, your coaches and parents are correct when they tell you to be discreet during CX. However, this does not mean that cross-ex, even in policy debate, cannot result in round-shifting arguments. Using these techniques can open up an entirely new strategic advantage, and give you the rhetorical high ground. Let’s make cross examination in policy debate worthwhile, and give those LD-ers a run for their money!

Sam Wooddell competed in Stoa through all four years of high school. He qualified for nationals each of those years in multiple speech events, in addition to qualifying in Parliamentary and Team Policy Debate. His senior year, Sam finished as a top five overall competitor in Stoa, with ten first-place finishes in speech along with five first-place finishes in Team Policy Debate. Sam was blessed to become the national champion in Team Policy Debate at NITOC 2018. Sam is currently attending Hillsdale College in Michigan and studying Political Economy. Sam’s ultimate goal as a coach is to assist students in honoring God through effective communication.