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*Crossfire is as important as any of the speeches
*Performing well in crossfire requires preparation and practice
*Since debaters both ask and answer questions in crossfire, they only have the opportunity for a limited number of questions.
*There are important strategies for asking and answering questions that debaters should understand
One popular question debaters ask is, “How can I perform better in Crossfire?”
This is a good question, as Crossfire is a very important part of Public Forum debate.
In fact, some judges will vote almost exclusively on the crossfire. For example, it is not uncommon for a judge to say something like, “I voted Pro. (Looking at the Con): They had had some really good questions and you couldn’t answer them.” End of RFD (Reason for Decision).
Such decisions can be frustrating, but they are a reality. There are lay judges in Public Forum (and non-lay judges who love Crossfire!), so you must always take it seriously. This is not a time for a mental break.
So, take crossfire seriously and plan ahead.
In this essay, I will offer some general tips, and then tips for asking and answering questions.
Realize your time is limited. Each crossfire period is 3 minutes. Let’s say it takes 30 seconds to ask a question and get an answer. That means that each side gets 3 questions. Even if the debaters somehow manage to double that, that’s only 6 questions per debater. So debaters should think about likely only having three questions and think very carefully about what questions they want to ask – What are the priority questions?
Prepare questions in advance. The best way to make good use of your time is to make a list of questions ahead of time. Now you may want to only use one (or none) of those questions, adapting your questioning to the debate you are in, but thinking of questions ahead of time will not only make sure you have questions to ask but it will also get your mind thinking about the topic and thinking of questions. If you think about the topic and questions ahead of time, you will be even be more likely to think of good questions during the debate.
Practice crossfire. Debaters often do practice debates and then they often practice re-doing their rebuttals. Sometimes they practice their constructive speeches. But why not practice the crossfire? You can even practice the crossfire with yourself! Write out the questions you might ask as suggested above and then think about how you will answer them.
Look at the judge. This is the simplest and most common piece of advice for any questioning period in any event – you need to look at the judge. It is the judge you are trying to convince, not your opponent.
Make sure the judge is paying attention. I mentioned earlier that some judges place very high value on the crossfire. This is true, and those judges will pay close attention. Other judges, however, do not pay such close attention to crossfire, so if there is a question or answer you want to make sure the judge hears what you are asking.
How can you do that? Cough, stare directly at the judge. Use some non-verbal cues to get the judge’s attention.
Tips for Asking
Ask for an explanation/clarification. It is impossible to answer an argument that you do not understand, so if you are uncertain of any arguments your opponent is making, you must ask them to explain the argument. Perhaps you will luck out and the argument won’t make any sense, but you have to figure that out. If it makes sense, you need to then figure out how to answer
Probe for weaknesses in important arguments. You know the speeches in PF are very short. In order to save your partner time in the next speech, you need to spend time probing for weaknesses and then exposing the weaknesses. This is especially true if the Rebuttal speaker (and especially the second Rebuttal speaker) reads offense/turns in the Rebuttal. There is very little time to cover these arguments in Summary (in addition to dealing with all of the other arguments) so you need to go after these arguments in Rebuttal.
When attacking the arguments made in Rebuttal during the Crossfire, you need to prioritize the issues that will decide the debate. Remember, there is only so much time for so many questions, so you need to go after the most important arguments.
To probe for weaknesses, you should try one more of the following — attack their evidence (evidence debaters read/reference/”paraphrase” is often not very good), attack logical reasoning weaknesses in their arguments, attack the relevance/significance of arguments, ask why a related argument you read doesn’t already answer their argument. This are just some ideas, but you need to spend time attacking their most significant and threatening arguments.
Don’t ask, ‘I’ll make X argument….how do you respond to it.” Other manifestations: Isn’t it true that…Do you agree that…Crossfire should be about asking questions related to arguments the other team made and probing for weaknesses in what they said, it is not about stating your argument and asking them to answer it. While this may work sometimes in beginner/novice debate, since they won’t know how to answer your question/argument, is a really terrible strategy in varsity debate; why would you want to give the other team in crossfire to answer your arguments?
Don’t become exasperated. Many debaters get frustrated when it is obviously that their questioning has revealed a weakness in their opponent’s argument but their opponent will not concede the point. If this happens, simply move on, as the judge will realize that the weakness in the argument.
Don’t cut off your opponent. Some debaters like to ask a question and then jump right in when their opponent starts to answer the question. When a question is asked, the recipient of the question must be given enough time to answer it. If this time isn’t provided, the person asking the question looks foolish.
Cut-off your opponent if…While you generally do not want to cut of your opponent, you may need to do so if your opponent is simply going on and on to answer the question. Allow your opponent a reasonable amount of time to answer the question, but if they keep talking, just say, “Thank you, but I have another question.” At that point, they may insist on asking a question, but either way the it prevents them from carrying on
Avoid open-ended questions. Open ended questions are broad questions that really allow an opponent to talk forever…at least as long as they want.
Open ended question: Why do you think universal background checks work?
This is an open-ended question that needs to be avoided because it allows the recipient of the question to speak as long as they wish, even making multiple arguments throughout the course of the answer. Since the question is so open-ended, it’s almost unfair to cut them off.
“Closed” question: Does your evidence that says when background checks were adopted in Connecticut that gun deaths went down account for any other factors, such as an improving economy and lower crime rates?
This closed question forces your opponent to directly answer the question at hand (and also allows you to essentially make a good argument if they cannot answer it).
If your opponent is giving a speech, interrupt them. The judge will realize your opponent had a reasonable amount of time to answer the question and that what they are starting to say is not relevant to the question. If this happens, just say, “Thank you, I now have another question.” If they try to fight you off, “Say, this is Crossfire, not a four minute Constructive.”
Tips for Answering
Take advantage of answering time to explain your arguments. Sometimes when you are speaking you do not have a lot of time to explain arguments you are making. This is especially true in the Rebuttal where you have to cover many Constructive arguments and in the Summary where time is short – only 2 minutes! If you know your explanation was weak, find a way to relate an argument to the question and start explaining it.
Take advantage of answering to add arguments. For example, if someone asks you why universal background checks fail, add some arguments that you didn’t get in the first time. In other events this would be considered heresy, but in PF, judges often treat arguments in crossfire as strongly as they treat arguments in the speeches.
Answer the question. If someone asks a question, answer it. Sure, answer it in a way that favors you, but always answer it. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know (or pivot: )).
Pivot to another issue. If you don’t have a good answer to a question, try to pivot to another (hopefully related) issue. For example, if they ask you about that specific Connecticut question, above, and you don’t have a good answer, just start talking generally about how universal background checks work or tell story about someone who was saved by a background check.
Win. At the end of a specific question, you always want to appear to be the winner – either that you have asked a question in a way that indicates that you have won a particular argument or that you have answered the question in a way that indicates that you have won a particular argument.
If your opponent demands yes/no. Sometimes questioners will say, “You have to answer this ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’” Well, you don’t have to answer it that way, you can answer the question in any way that you want to answer it. In this context, you should simply explain that the question is too complex for a Yes or No answer but that you will answer the question in a way that is helpful. Then provide your answer.
Know your evidence and be able to explain it. You should be familiar with the evidence that you are presenting and/or referring to in a speech. If you are asked a question about it, answer the question while referring to the evidence.
Don’t hide your evidence, share it. I have been involved in debate for many years and I’m still surprised about how PF debaters want to hide their evidence from the other team and often the judge. Some debaters have accused me of asking for evidence so that I can take it (LOL, as if I need more evidence). When I ask for evidence after a debate, I usually just want to see if it says what the debaters say it says, and often, well, it does not. So, I guess if you are just lying about your evidence then I understand why you don’t want to share it, but I think that if you have good evidence that you should be proud of it and be willing to share it with others. If you aren’t proud of it and willing to share it, then don’t be surprised if the other team and the judge think you are making things up.
Assert your right to answer questions. If someone asks you a question and then cuts off your answers, simply assert that you are going to answer the question and that if they aren’t going to let you then you should be the one asking the question, not them.
Provide vague answers when being set up. Sometimes you recognize that your opponent is trying to lead you down some path to set you up. If you recognizes this is what is starting to happen, provide vague answers to the question(s) so that you will have leeway to offer a different explanation of your answer later.
If your opponent interrupts…If your opponent keeps interrupting your answers, say you will not answer any more questions until your they stop interrupting you. Take a stand!
Crossfire is a very important part of Public Forum debate that many participants do not take seriously. Debaters should put as much attention into preparing for crossfire as they do to any speech and should think through strategies for asking and answering questions.