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It’s been said that many debate rounds are won and lost in cross examination. While I would agree that winning every debate in cross examination is a bit of a lofty goal for even the best debaters, never losing a debate in cross examination is a goal I think every debater should strive for and is capable of achieving. Here are a few tips to help you get there:

Know your stuff

Unlike some of the items on this list, this one is not a quick fix, and you will have to put the time in to get the results. That being said, I can’t overstate the importance of having a wide knowledge base to draw from when answering CX questions, especially since you don’t normally have the time or opportunity to check your briefs or evidence.

  • Know the resolution

Knowing the resolution (more specifically, different interpretations of the resolution and common arguments under the resolution) can help you anticipate where your opponent is going with a given line of questioning and help you to give better phrased answers.

  • Know your case

In any given case, there are vital underlying premises to the arguments, and there are premises that don’t really matter. Knowing the difference between these two can be vital since defending everything as if it is a vital premise can make you look defensive and disagreeable, but conceding a vital premise can be fatal.

  • Know potential questions

Obviously being good at thinking on your feet is important in CX, but whenever possible, anticipating questions you think you are likely to hear and thinking through your answers in advance so you don’t get caught off guard will serve you well.

Feel free to say: “I don’t know”

Many debaters get scared to acknowledge they don’t know something, often scared that the judge will think they’re stupid. But what they forget to acknowledge is that oftentimes the judge doesn’t know the answer to the super niche question your opponent asked either and won’t think any less of you for not knowing either. Additionally, it is often better to go ahead and acknowledge when you don’t know rather than ramble through an answer that is obviously wrong or convoluted. 

Take thoughtful pauses

Again, many debaters are scared of this one, but there are a couple reasons I would encourage embracing more pauses before answering

  • They aren’t that noticeable 

Pauses are almost never as noticeable as you think; what you consider a long pause might go completely unnoticed as the judge also thinks about your opponent’s question or catches up on their notes.

  • They appear thoughtful

Even when the judges do notice pauses, I find they are almost always regarded positively; usually, the judge interprets the silence as the debater putting thought into their response rather than just responding reflexively.

  • They prevent blunders

A short pause can help you think through your answer and catch blunders in wording or ideas that could lose you the debate, and with that much on the line, it would be foolish not to think twice for difficult questions.

When in doubt, couch your answers

While it’s generally frowned upon to not answer your opponent, oftentimes you can get away with giving answers that are utterly useless through couching your answers. This can be done using phrasing like “that is generally true” or “that would be accurate under the right circumstances.” This makes it difficult for your opponent to draw any broad conclusions since your answers leave room for exceptions.. I would highly recommend using this technique any time you don’t know where your opponent is going with a question so that they can’t use your answer for an obscure situation that you weren’t considering when you responded.

D. J. an economics major at North Carolina State University. Her debate philosophy is that debate should be fun for everyone, so keep it ethical so your opponent can enjoy the round, keep it entertaining so the judge enjoys it, and keep it lively and humorous so you can enjoy the round too. To learn more about D. J. you can read her bio here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/djmendenhall/ or book coaching with her here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/xl-3/

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