Being cross-examined is stressful. Lots of debater let the pressure get to them – they ramble, bend over backwards to avoid answering questions, fidget, and talk twice as fast as they should. In this short post, I’ll tell you how to keep your cool when you’re on the receiving end of CX.
Say “Yes” or “No” when you can.
This one probably comes as a surprise. At least one of your coaches has likely told you not to answer yes-or-no questions straight. After all, talking around the question impedes your opponent’s progress and eats up their time. And what else could you hope for in CX?
Sometimes, refusing to give a straight answer gives you an advantage. But not if your opponent knows what they’re doing. If there is a yes-or-no answer to their question, experienced debaters will just keep asking it. And it will eventually become obvious to the judge that you’re just trying to avoid answering the question. Almost nothing is worse for your credibility than that. You’ve all cringed watching press secretaries, politicians, and news anchors repeatedly refuse to answer “Yes” or “No” to simple questions. Don’t be like them – no one will trust you, especially not the judge.
Answering “Yes” or “No,” calmly and slowly, without breaking eye contact with the judge, projects confidence. It communicates that you aren’t bothered by your opponent’s question, that you saw it coming from a mile away.
Some debaters (and politicians, and press secretaries, and news anchors) think that answering “Yes” or “No” will be the end of the world. It won’t. I promise. (As long as you give the right answer. If the answer is obviously “Yes,” and you say “No,” then it might be the end of the world. But you can avoid that by not giving answers that are obviously false. More on this in the last section below.)
Say “It depends” when you can’t say “Yes” or “No.”
Sometimes your opponent’s question doesn’t have a yes-or-no answer, but they want one anyway. In this case, you should still aim to give a short but qualified answer, like “It depends,” or “Most often, yes,” or “Not necessarily,” or “Not exactly.”
Why not give a long answer? There are a few reasons. First, long answers can appear rambling to the judge, and if they suspect that you are just trying to eat up your opponent’s time, this will hurt your rapport. Second, long answers can come across as dodges – the judge may suspect that you are trying to avoid answering the question, and that will lead them to suspect you have no good answer to it.
Here’s the third, and probably most important, reason. If your first response to a question is a long one, you’ll miss your chance to be invited to give a long answer. If you instead say something short and sweet, like “It depends,” then the next question is almost certain to be, “On what?” And now you’ve got free reign to explain your short answer in detail. After all, your opponent asked you to elaborate. This is the best way to eat up your opponent’s time, because it doesn’t come with any of the disadvantages outlined in the last paragraph.
If you’re cornered, don’t say anything crazy. Let future you figure it out in prep time.
The year was 2020. A debater I know – we’ll call him Ben McKay, because that’s his name – was cross-examining an opponent during preliminary rounds at a national open. The resolution was, “Preventive war is ethical.” The affirmative had just finished arguing that (1) all nations have a right to self-defense, (2) preventive war is self-defense, and (3) therefore, all nations have a right to wage preventive war.
Ben started by asking, “Is it your position that anything done in self-defense is ethical?”
“Yes,” his opponent answered.
At that point, the round was over. Obviously, you can’t do just anything in self-defense. You can’t nuke a civilian center to avoid being pinched, for example. All Ben had to do was press the point. So he did.
“If you’re in a dark alley staring down the barrel of a gun, and the only way to defend yourself is to use an innocent bystander as a human shield, should you do it?”
The answer, obviously, is “No.” But Ben’s opponent didn’t want to say “No,” because she was (rightly) worried this would undermine her case. So she beat around the bush. For a while. So, Ben asked the same question five times. Finally, his opponent said, “Yes.”
That was a mistake, clearly. As I always say, the first rule of debate is, “Keep It Simple Stupid” (K.I.S.S.). The second rule might be, “Don’t explicitly endorse homicide in CX.”
You are eventually going to get backed into a corner in CX. When you do, don’t say anything crazy. You will be tempted to try and wiggle out of the knot you’re in right then and there, but while CX is happening, you have very little time to plan your escape. It is best to give the answer that is obviously right, and then take prep time to figure out how you’re going to handle the problem in rebuttals. For example, Ben’s opponent should have answered, “No, of course not,” and then spent prep time coming up with a reason why Ben’s thought experiment was a bad moral analogy for the case of preventive war. There’s no guarantee she would have come up with such a reason. But her chances would have been better with more time to think.
Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and a PhD student in philosophy at Purdue University. He has been coaching Lincoln Douglas debate for six years.