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If you have the capability to participate in high school Mock Trial, do it. Don’t wait for college. Although it’s a demanding activity, the life benefits you accrue are invaluable for life. In addition to being the only format of debate that melds argumentation and acting, mock trial acquaints you with court procedures, the rules of evidence, courtroom decorum, instantaneous improvisation (even more stimulating — or petrifying, depending upon how you want to consider it — than limited prep speeches), rhetorical persuasion, and most importantly, cross-examination. If you’re not fortunate enough to have the opportunity to compete in Mock Trial, this blog post distills for you as a high school debater the essential skills of CX that Mock Trial imparts.

Before we delve into the specifics, understand this: It is not an audacious, insurmountable goal for you to acquire the CX acumen of a seasoned attorney. Both attorneys and debaters both grapple with the same fundamental issue — maintaining the interest and influencing the mindset of a frequently apathetic audience. Debaters must reckon with the practically unconscious parent who has judged the last seventeen debate and speech rounds (not their fault, obviously) and attorneys frantically try to persuade twelve indolent jurors who are in the absolutely last place they want to be and typically harbor resentment toward all lawyers. Because you and an attorney have the same objective, you both can employ the same means to actualize your goal.

Why don’t all debaters cross-examine like attorneys? It’s because the court system, whether in the simulated realm of mock trial or the real world, has a number of checks (such as rules enforced through objections) to streamline the development of cross-examination. Frankly, debaters have the far harder task because if an attorney asks a poor question, opposing counsel (or even the judge) will object and the attorney will be impelled to rephrase. If you can internalize these rules and tactics, your confidence in and capacity for cross-examination will be increased and enriched.

Tactic 1: Simple Questions

Ensure that your questions are succinct, dividing multiple-clause phrases into short, terse questions. In fact, in the courtroom, if an attorney poses a overly verbose question, opposing counsel will object to “Compound Question.” It’s difficult for a judge\jury\witness\other debater to apprehend, process, and digest a compound monstrosity.

Examiner: “So, Norway, which values rehabilitation, has a recidivism rate–which is the metric for determining the frequency of criminals committing another crime–of 20% and the US, which values retribution, has a recidivism rate of 76%, right?”

Aside from the fact that if you’re an NCFCA LDer you should avoid this argument altogether, this question can be parsed into five to seven simple questions.

“You’d agree with me that recidivism rates measure how many criminals return to crime?”

“Norway has a 20% recidivism rate, right?”

“This means that 20 of every 100 prisoners will return to crime?

“The US has a 76% recidivism rate, correct?”

“And just to clarify, this means 76 of every 100 prisoners will return to crime?”

“You’d agree with me that Norway values rehabilitation above retribution, correct?”

“And the US values retribution above rehabilitation, right?”

Instill within yourself your own “Compound Question” objection trigger, and your CX speaker points will skyrocket. You’ll appear more professional, more dominant, and more capable. The unwieldy question is cumbersome and yawn-inducing, but the rapid string of short questions captivates your judge, boosts their estimation of you, and maintains their attention… which is exactly what you want to do in CX.

Tactic 2: Close-Ended Questions

No objection even exists for open-ended questions in mock trial or the real courtroom, because attorneys recognize that open-ended questions are abysmally ineffective.

“What does recidivism mean?”

“Does Norway value rehabilitation?”

“What’s Norway’s recidivism rate?”

“What does the US value?”

What’s the US’s recidivism rate?”

Open-ended questions have myriad possible answers, they afford the opportunity for your opponent to ramble incessantly, qualifying their answers, squandering your time, and undermining your case.

Witness: “It’s difficult to determine what objective the US prioritizes in criminal justice. Elements of rehabilitation and retribution both persist in the system, and it seems to be relative to the jurisdiction. Furthermore…”

On the other hand, like simple questions, close-ended questions establish your professionalism and dominance in the round. Even if your opponent still chooses to dispense the long-winded answer, they’ll subconsciously truncate it due to the nature of your question. Why? It’s because they recognize that the question demands a mere “yes” or “no,” and anything too extraneous or superfluous will rankle the audience.

Examiner: “The US prioritizes retribution, correct?”

Witness: “Well that’s difficult to determine, and it’s relative to the jurisdiction.”

Examiner: “You’d agree with me that on the whole, the US values retribution, correct?”

Witness: “It’s still relative to the jurisdiction.”

Examiner: “I’m asking you about the US as a whole. The overarching philosophy prefers retribution, isn’t that right?”

If a witness gives long-winded answers for open-ended questions, it seems natural, but if he fights with close-ended questions, he appears defensive and sometimes even belligerent. Besides, the more he fights, the more opportunities you have to repeat your question, to which the judge becomes more and more receptive each time she hears it.

When crafting close-ended questions, a good attorney interchanges different formats, sometimes affixing “would you agree” to the beginning, “…correct,” “…isn’t it true,” or “…isn’t that right,” to the end of questions, other times merely stating the answer with a questioning tone. The more you vary your close-ended question structure, the more you cultivate your CX expertise, and engage your audience by not overly depending upon cliche phrases.

Tactic 3: Tell a Story

In mock trial, the examiner doesn’t launch a barrage of simple, closed, yet unrelated and disconnected questions. Rather, she seeks to tell a story with cross-examination, starting with point A and leading the audience, step by step, logical link by logical link, succinct closed question by succinct closed question, inexorably to point B.

To return to this example, even the drudgery of mundane statistics can be reshaped as a story.

“You’d agree with me that recidivism rates measure how many criminals return to crime?”

“Norway has a 20% recidivism rate, right?”

“This means that 20 of every 100 prisoners will return to crime?

“The US has a 76% recidivism rate, correct?”

“And just to clarify, this means 76 of every 100 prisoners will return to crime?”

“You’d agree with me that Norway values rehabilitation above retribution, correct?”

“And the US values retribution above rehabilitation, right?”

This line of questioning begins with establishing the definition of recidivism, then, in the third question, intuitively linking the definition to the statistic. It follows a similar pattern in the fourth and fifth questions, building up to the logical cliffhanger, prompting the judge to wonder why the statistics behave this way. The six and seventh questions solidify the (albeit overly simplistic and dubious) answer, bringing satisfying closure to this narrative.

Riveting, right? Yeah, it’s certainly not a New York Times bestselling thriller, but (seriously) if you modulate your voice, lead your audience along through your opponent’s answers, and insert a few dramatic pauses, you will create the narrative effect with your judges. They’ll perceive a distinct opening, climax, and conclusion to each line of question, and conceiving of it as a narrative arc will enable them to follow it. It’s also the prime mechanism for maintaining the concentration of a jury–tell them a story, and they’ll remain interested.


Do mock trial. But if you can’t, practice these tactics. They’ll equip you well to engage the unscripted, thrilling world of CX.

Also, make sure you sign up for Ethos Head Coach Isaiah McPeak’s CX training session on March 14! Isaiah will address the three tactics and more, plus some hands-on coaching to boot.


Joel Erickson is a Coach-in-Training and Blogger for Ethos Debate. In his two years competing in the NCFCA, he consistently advanced to finals and semifinals in Lincoln-Douglas and qualified to elimination rounds at Nationals in several speech and debate events. Currently, he is enrolled Wheaton College (IL), pursuing a double major in Philosophy and English with the aim of teaching at the collegiate level or attending law school. Education is his primary passion, and after coaching his local club’s apologetics program for two years, he is serving this year as their assistant coach for LD.
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