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Unscripted. Fast-paced. No prep time. Cross-examination is the true test of a debater, and my personal favorite in a debate round. It forces you not only to think on your feet, but to reason. It also necessitates a very artful crafting of your questions. This article deals with learning to master the art of asking questions.

This sentimental example illustrates the beauty of questions, from the Nobel laureate scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi:

“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, “So? Did you learn anything today?” But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”

Asking good questions is one of the most influential ways to sway your audience’s decision. But there are so many things debaters do to mess it up.

Sin 1: Not building lines of questioning.

The purpose of CX is foremost to establish arguments. An argument builds on itself, establishing its premises in steps. Without a line of questioning (premises in the argument), you won’t be able to establish an argument. It’s impossible to decipher what argument you’re addressing/making if you don’t firmly establish that line of questioning. The best debaters often break what a novice might treat as one question into as many as ten.

Sin 2: Unreasonable answers.

Has this ever happened to you?

You: Does A = B?

Them: Yes

You: And does B = C?

Them: Yep

You: Does A lead to C?

Them: No, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

It’s the most maddening thing. If you have to give clearly illogical or unreasonable answers to protect your argument, you shouldn’t have made the argument.

I will note: it’s much better to ask the first two questions and let the judge complete the syllogism in their mind. If you go that extra step of, “Does A lead to C?”, it’s usually too far Essentially, they’re not going to agree to what you say. When you go too far, you lose ground. Know when to ask that final connecting question, and when to simply pause and let the judge complete the syllogism in their mind.

Sin 3: Clarifying too much.

Asking too many clarification questions is bad for two reasons. First, it isn’t argumentation. It’s recapping what was previously said. Secondly, it gives your enthusiastic opponent plenty of time to rebuild their case and further persuade the judge. You’re supposed to build your arguments through your questions; if you don’t, it’s an interview instead of a debate round. There’s no clash. There’s no intellectual activity. You’re backtracking. If you don’t understand something, though, feel free to ask about it. And if you’re running out of questions to ask, asking a clarification question or two gives you material to further ask about.

Sin 4: Filler questions.

What’s the worst thing you could do when you don’t know what to say? Fill the space with nonsense. Debaters have those “set questions” that they tend to ask every CX, sometimes just to spend their time. “Is the judge ready? Is the timer ready? Can we have a copy of your case? Could you summarize your case in just one sentence?” Just…stop. Don’t ever ask questions to just fill your time. If you have all the information/arguments you need, stop. Sit down. Don’t waste precious argumentation time with fillers.

Sin 5: Bullying.

Rudeness. Bad. When Isaiah teaches on CX, he actually says the number 1, most important part of CX is to “be liked” – and you should sacrifice everything to not risk that. Remember that people discredit themselves by being unreasonable, so you don’t need to become a bully. Many rounds are lost in CX – including by an excellent debater getting a newbie to admit their entire case is a failure, when even the judge could’ve answered in a way that that isn’t so and it was just abusing the moment – but few rounds are ever won in CX. You could win debate rounds without CX at all. Don’t be a bully.

Sin 6: Open-ended questions, especially ones that let them respond to your 1NC arguments before it’s even happened ::facepalm::

“How is your case solvent?” “Why is your plan a good idea?” “Do you think there are any better solutions?” All questions I’ve been asked in CX! A delightful smorgasbord of options there, right? Don’t ask open-ended questions.

It’s not difficult to phrase your questions in a way that only allows for “yes”/”no” answers – known as a “leading question”:

  1. “Are we agreed that…?”
  2. “Is it true that…?”
  3. “…, correct?”
  4. “You argued…, correct?”

All of those mean you will put the declarative statement inside of the question (where the “…” is) rather than asking for a statement from the other team. And then, you’re just asking for confirmation or denial. Very nice. (Pro lawyer tip: That’s why it’s called cross-examination, not direct examination, because the difference is leading vs. open-ended questions.) Here are examples of an open-ended CX not going so well and an example of leading-questions CX from same round.

Sin 7: Unclear arguments.

Do what it takes to be clear about your argument. Don’t ask questions that confuse the judge, have no point, or leave your audience in the dark.  If you ask a question that you think proves a big point but the judge appears lost, you’ve been unclear about your audience. Leading your audience on a wild ride only leads to confusion. Confusion leads to disinterest, disinterest leads to tuning you out, and by then you’ve lost the ballot. Be as clear as you can about the point of your question. If the judge appears confused by your CX, clarify it later speeches or immediately. 


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