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When I competed in the NCFCA, my cross-examination style was fairly typical: I would try to ask targeted questions about aspects of my opponent’s case that I considered relatively weak. My thought process was simply that, so long as they were talking about a vulnerable area of their case, they would not be able to gain much ground during the cross-examination, and I might even pin them into a corner.

That worked most of the time. Generally speaking, so long as I correctly identified which aspects of their case gave them the least potential for explaining their narrative, they would not be able to score many points for themselves while I was asking questions.

However, my strategy did not work all of the time. At the higher levels of NCFCA, competitors have explanations for all of the weak aspects of their case—and will be able to convince the judges of their reasons, provided only that they are given time to do so.

Thus, my cross-examination strategy occasionally worked against me. Sometimes, my asking about weaker aspects of my opponent’s cases functioned solely to give them time to explain away whatever concern I was about to propound in my following speech. Thus, not only would I be unable to move forward (i.e., establish my points) in my cross-examination, but I would often move backward (i.e., allowing my opponent to establish their points effectively).

Where am I going with all of this? What is the moral of this anecdote? The point is simply this: my cross-examination strategy was incomplete. I correctly asked questions about comparatively weak parts of my opponents’ cases, but I needed to add one more element. I needed to ask closed-ended questions.

What is a closed-ended question?

Well, not that (^). That question I just asked is open-ended because it can be answered with any number of statements. You could give a significant number of correct responses and a near-infinite amount of incorrect responses. A closed-ended question, by contrast, assumes the answer and asks the respondent only to confirm or deny.

My thesis today is that you should consider shifting some (or most) of your open-ended questions to a closed-ended format. The reason is simple: your opponent has significantly less wiggle room when confronted with a closed-ended question. The phrasing of your question confines them to only a short answer (which, if you ask a good question, is likely to be useful for you), and if they attempt to give a longer answer, you can justifiably cut them off by saying, “That wasn’t what I asked.”

That boils down to one clear advantage: preventing your opponent from talking at length, helping their case and spoiling your cross-examination time.

Here are a few examples to illustrate what I mean:

Example #1:

Open-Ended: Did you read evidence supporting [xyz point]?

Closed-Ended: You didn’t read evidence supporting [xyz point], did you?

Example #2:

Open-Ended: Which gases are responsible for climate change?

Closed-Ended: Carbon dioxide is not the only gas accountable for climate change, right?

Example #3:

Open-Ended: What are the potential consequences of automation on the job market?

Closed-Ended: Will automation lead to job loss, yes or no?

As you can see, the essential goal is to ask questions in a significantly narrower and more pointed way than you usually do. Give your opponents fewer options for their response, and let your contentions shine throughout the cross-examination.

Patrick McDonald competed in the NCFCA for five years. He is currently attending Hillsdale College in Michigan, The United States of America, where he is pursuing a double major in Politics and History. If you would like to book coaching with Patrick, click here.

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