Loose Nukes Because every debate can be improved with a little highly-enriched uranium.



You've just finished a fantastic speech, and your opponent is getting up to cross-examine you. Renowned for his brilliant, probing questions, his reputation alone would make any self-respective debater quake in fear. Not you. Over the course of your career you've become a master at eloquently avoiding questions, not conceding points, and generally wasting the other team's time. You have nothing to fear. You're great at taking CX.


I argue that you should do two things:

  1. Answer every question directly and accurately.
  2. Intentionally make your answers as concise as possible. Say only what is neccessary to make your point, and then stop talking.

This is a radical proposition. Not only am I telling you to answer all the questions, I'm essentially telling you to give the other team as much time as possible. "But wait," you may say. "Am I just supposed to lay down and let them walk all over me?" Not at all. If anything, responding directly increases your ability to defend yourself in cross-examination.

Answers are power

Evasive CXes are, simply put, tactical attempts to avoid arguments. This is entirely the wrong approach: the point of debate is to beat arguments, not sneak around them. The other team is handing you an opportunity to respond on a silver platter. Use it, and just crush the argument. Seriously. A concise, clear rebuttal is infinitely more powerful than a jumble of slippery weasel eggs. If your arguments are sound, you have nothing to fear from answering questions frankly; if they aren't, you need to change your arguments, not give tricky answers.

Brevity is wit

Basically, don't try to waste the other team's time. There are several good reasons to keep your answers as concise as possible:

  1. Your judges will like you. Judges love clear, simple rhetoric, and will consider you more articulate and professional. I've seen this theme consistently across innumerable ballots and conversations with parent, alumni, and community judges.
  2. Your opponents will like you. There are few things more annoying than a longwinded answerer. If they don't constantly have to cut you off, CX will be less aggressive. If nothing else, this will help keep your blood pressure down.
  3. It's good practice. In contrast to CX, brevity is at premium during speeches. Learning how to concisely respond in CX is excellent practice for concisely responding in rebuttals. In contrast, getting used to rambling can form bad habits.

Note that by "brevity" I don't mean "leaving out information" (unless the information is unnecessary, of course.) I merely mean "not rambling on endlessly when you could make your point in a few words" - cutting out the fluff and getting straight to the point. ("No, our second mandate says the program will be canceled if that happens." Quick and neat.)

A final note

One final issue I'd like to address: what about the other team trapping you into saying something that they later turn against you? This is a legitimate concern, but avoiding questions isn't the solution. You will still say things that your opponents can use against you. Learning to give powerful, straightforward answers has helped me avoid slipping up much more than avoiding questions ever did.

Done right, answering CX questions can be just as powerful as asking them. You'll come away with your arguments clearer and your credibility enhanced. Use your answers to answer, and your ballots will thank you.

Extend-o-tron 5000: A video example

Bonus: Here's an quick example to illustrate what this looks like (national champion Patrick Shipsey being cross-examined at NCFCA Nationals in 2010.) While a few of his answers could be a bit more concise, it's an excellent example of the general concept I'm talking about. Notice how the Affirmative spends more time asking the questions than he spends answering them - and how she completely fails to get any useful concessions out of him.

Comments (9) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Nicely put! 🙂

  2. Yeah, he really does need to be more concise. It REALLY didn’t help that the negative had to ask him to do so.

  3. I think you’re missing the point. She doesn’t ask him to be more concise, she asks him to omit information. For example, she asks (basically) “is the text of the CAA the same now as it was in 1991?” The technical answer is yes, but that would give a very misleading impression, because the text of the law is not the only thing that matters. When hit with a question like this, a lot of debaters would try to avoid the question; Shipsey just says “yes, but the regulations applied under it are different”, and stops talking.

    The conciseness I’m referring to is omitting needless words, not omitting important information.

  4. I agree. I would just rephrase to say that your answers should include just the “core” ideas; which is a little more restrictive than just “important information.” Sometimes it’s possible to summarize a lot of important information with just a few ideas. Those ideas are the most powerful.

    In the video, the CXer really comes off as a control freak to me. Shipsey was giving really short answers; but she wanted to force him into yes/no. It looked really bad on her part. On the other hand, quick replies come across as very confident.

  5. Um, exactly. And yes, just saying “yes” or “no” can dig oneself into a hole, I’m sure.

  6. I don’t see anything different about Shipsey’s cross x that you posted and the completely normal cross x I see every single round in California. How is this so special?

    Also… the girl cross x’ing him asked no strong questions, which is why she got nothing out of the cross examination.

    I definitely agree that we shouldn’t be evasive in Cross Examination, but I guess what I’m saying is… the only person who has ever been evasive to me in cross examination was Josiah, and I’ve never seen it any other time. Is this actually a problem? Evasiveness I mean… cuz I’ve almost never seen it.

  7. Yes, it’s a problem. Congratulations that your state doesn’t stink.

    I’m from Texas. Debate in Texas is pretty high-quality, but there are still a significant number of people who do this regularly. They’re a small minority, but they’re an extremely irritating small minority. 😛 This post is directed at them.

    There are a lot of lesser degrees of this, of course. Most of the time, it’s not direct evasion, it’s just “not actively trying to stop talking.” A LOT of people take an unnecessarily long time answering questions.

  8. honestly, Patrick did a fabulous job in that cross ex.
    also, on a slightly different note, (i’m not sure where gaskell stands on this issue) but never ask/tell someone in cross-ex to give you a yes-or-no answer to your questions. there are other ways to deal with people who ramble and that way can turn the judges off and doesn’t make you look that great-ish.

  9. If you phrase the questions right (“[straightforward fact], correct?” etc.), anything other than a yes/no answer will sound evasive. This will either make them answer the questions, or make them look bad – either of which is probably a good outcome for you.

    For asking-people-to-answer-the-question-without-asking-them-to-answer-the-question, the tactic I like the most is something like: *ramble ramble ramble* “So that’s a yes?” (or) “Was that a yes or a no?” It sounds like polite clarification, while cleanly skewering them with the “THIS PERSON DOES NOT ANSWER QUESTIONS” stigma.

    (Actually, explaining the entirety of an opponent’s lengthy ramble with few well-picked words is a pretty fun tactic all around. It’s one of the fastest ways to convince the judge that you’re the better speaker.)

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