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What would you say is the ideal cross-examination? Ideas like “a cross-examination that makes your opponents admit their faults” or “asking questions that strengthen your case” may come to mind. However, there’s a unique feature of cross-examination that often goes overlooked: asking for clarification.

I’ve consistently seen people contend that clarifying questions should be avoided, primarily because people are concerned that doing so will damage credibility. 

In your rebuttals, you won’t be able to get clarification instantly as you can in cross-examination. Even if you ask for clarification as an argument in your speech, you’re going to have to wait for a full speech before you get the information you need to refute your opponent.

I’ll be explaining why it’s so important to get clarification in cross-examination and how to do so without losing credibility.

Why Clarification

There are two main reasons to ask for clarification:

1 – Refutation

Before you can refute an argument, the judge must first understand the original argument given by your opponent. If the judge can’t grasp what your opponent is saying, they’ll have no idea what you’re refuting. If you’re unsure what your opponent is contending or the logic behind their position, it is crucial to ask for clarification in cross-examination. 

If you as an experienced debater don’t understand what your opponent is contending, it’s probable that the judge doesn’t understand either. This is one of the reasons why experienced competitors see ballots every so often where they lose against novices. The judge doesn’t understand what you’re refuting and they become so confused at the end of the round, they don’t know who to vote for. 

Competitors make the mistake of making their opponents’ analysis less clear. However, the clearer your opponent’s analysis, the easier it is for your judge to understand your refutation.

You can’t consistently win off confusion. Clarify your opponent’s argument in cross-examination so that when you give your speech, the judge knows exactly what is being responded to.

2 – Time Management

Imagine that you’re on the negative in Lincoln-Douglas, you don’t understand your opponent’s argument, and give a response that doesn’t apply. When your opponent clarifies in the 1AR, you only have one speech to explain your response in the NR. Meaning that if the 2AR points out a flaw that you have a response to, your response will never see the light.

However, if you have the argument clarified in cross-examination so you understand exactly what your opponent’s warrant is, you give the correct response in the NC, the 1AR points out what the 2AR would’ve previously pointed out, and now it’s easier to win the argument because you’ve positioned yourself where you have a chance to respond.

Asking for clarification in a speech or misunderstanding an argument will cost you the opportunity to delve deeper into the argument and convince the judge. Gain clarification in cross-examination.

How to Clarify

The primary reason people avoid asking for clarification is that they worry the judge will think that they weren’t paying attention or aren’t knowledgeable. That’s a legitimate concern. Like anything in speech and debate, clarification can be asked for in both effective and ineffective ways. There are two parts to clarifying without harming your credibility:

1 – Strategic Placing

The first question you ask in cross-examination will set the tone for the rest of the round. Don’t open your cross-examination by asking for clarification because that will give the judge the impression that the cross-examination will be primarily used for filling up what you missed in your notes. Ask your clarifying questions in the middle of the cross-examination, usually a minute or two in.

That way, you have the most important questions stuck in the judge’s mind from the beginning and you can gain the strategic clarification later on in the cross-examination when the judge’s first impression of you is already set.

2 – The Follow-up

After you ask a clarifying question, ask a second question to follow-up on it, even if you don’t plan to use the answer in your next speech. For instance…

Question 1 (Clarifying Question). “What was the warrant for your harm about environmental damage?”
Answer. “Economic growth means no restrictions which on that which harms the environment.”
Question 2 (The Follow-up). “What restrictions would you contend for to protect the environment?”

The down-side of this method is that it costs time. However, one main purpose of cross-examination is the build your credibility, and the follow-up question allows you to maintain credibility even if you missed something. It looks like you’re trying to trap your opponent even though you’re just obtaining clarification.

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Clarification is critical in cross-examination, and you can clarify while maintaining credibility. 

About the Author

Kyle Lee has competed in both NCFCA and Stoa. His accomplishments include over fifty top-three finishes, the record for the most first places won at a single NCFCA tournament (seven firsts in one go at the 2020 Bothell WA, NCFCA Qualifier), first place Lincoln Douglas debater & speaker at the 2020 NCFCA Online National Championship, and first place Team Policy debater & speaker at the 2020 Stoa Online National Championship.
Outside of speech and debate, Kyle is an avid rock climber, holds a second-degree black belt in Karate, and enjoys writing music in his free time.

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