As discussed, the Crossfire is the questioning period in the debate.
It is also the part of the debate that is, unfortunately, not very highly valued by the debaters. And, in spite of the fact that they do not value it highly, it’s importance will not go away.
Why is the crossfire important?
First, it is a substantial part of the debate. There are three crossfires in the debate, totalling 9 minutes. The speeches (four Constructives, two Summaries, two Final Focuses) total 24 minutes. With a public forum debate lasting 33 minutes, the Crossfire portion of the debate is 27% of the debate.
When I ask debaters what percentage of time they spend preparing for Crossfire, they simply tell me 5% or less. So they are spending 5% of their total preparation time preparing for what is 27% of the debate….
And it’s not just the amount of time the crossfire occupies in the debate. It is also the fact that judges highly value the crossfire, especially lay and inexperienced judges. In an evaluation of judge ballots where the judges were substantially lay, I found that for approximately one-third of the judges that the crossfire was the most significant part of the debate in terms of their decision-making.
Although judges are instructed not to focus exclusively on crossfire when making their decisions, it is impossible to control what judges actually vote on, and debaters who want to win must accept the reality that crossfire is critically important to many judges.
While not common in other events, you can win or lose debates in the Crossfire in Public Forum. Given this, you have to prioritize at as part of your debate prep and execution.
And beyond the importance the judges place on it, it is an important part of the debate that debaters should pay attention to. It’s simply a useful tool that can help debaters win debates, regardless as to the significance judges may afford to it.
In this chapter, we will discuss general strategies for the crossfire, what types of questions to ask in crossfire, and how to use crossfire to convey critical information to the judge when answering questions. Debaters underestimate even more the importance of answering questions in a way that will help them in the debates.
As you approach Crossfire, you need to think of it as something you want to participate in — something you should get excited about. It is a chance to demonstrate that you know what you are talking about and to directly undermine your opponent.
A Note About Mechanics
Unlike other debate formats, in Crossfire in Public Forum, debaters take turns asking and answering questions.
Ordinarily, the person who gave the second speech (for example, the Second constructive), will have questions asked to them by the person who previously spoke. After that, the debaters will take turns asking and answering questions, though sometimes a brief follow-up is appropriate.
Often, debaters ask, “Can I have the first question?” This is not necessary, and debaters can just pop up and ask a question. Similarly, it is not necessary to ask if you can have the next question. You can just ask the next question.
General Considerations for Crossfire
In preparing both to ask and answer questions, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Limited time. Each crossfire period is only three minutes and in Public Forum debaters have the option of both asking and answering questions. So, generally speaking, each debater has approximately ninety seconds of questions to ask and ninety second of questions to answer.
Since this is a very limited amount of time, debaters must choose carefully among questions they want to ask and they have to put critical information in the limited amount of time to answer. And if they want to ask more questions, they have to make sure their answers are not only helpful but also concise.
It is important to recognize that you only have approximately 90 seconds to ask questions and that you need to prioritize the three to four questions that you will have time to ask.
Planning ahead. When preparing for their debates, debaters should always be thinking about what questions they want to ask in Crossfire and what answers they want to give to questions they think their opponents will ask. As in all other parts of the debate, being prepared means thinking ahead.
Face the judge. You should look at the judge both when asking and answering questions. Remember that it is the judge, not your opponent, who you are trying to persuade. This also gives you the chance to follow the judge’s reaction to your arguments.
Recognize that this is prep time for your partner. You should never let Crossfire end early, not just because you want to take advantage of opportunities Crossfire presents to help you win debates, but also because your partner will often (after Constructive and Rebuttal speeches) be using this time to prepare his or her speech.
Asking Questions — Foundational Points
The most important part of asking a question is thinking ahead to what you think the answer to the question will be and how that will help you.
Will asking the question expose a weakness, clarify a point, enhance your own understanding, set-up an argument? If you cannot think of how their likely answer will help you, do not ask the question.
Two examples —
Example one: Do you have a piece of evidence that says X? Answer — No, we do not.
Asking this question is useful if you know the other team does not have a piece of evidence that says X and you want to establish that fact and make it clear to the judge.
Example two: Do you have a piece of evidence that says X? Answer — Yes, we do. Here it is.
This question is useful to you if you want to see the piece of evidence. If you do not want to see the piece of evidence, this does not help you at all, as all it does is demonstrate to the judge that the other team has a piece of evidence that makes an argument.
You will not always know what the answer will be when asking a question, but you need to think about what the other team will say that is useful to you. If they are likely to answer a question you ask in away that is not useful, you need to ask a different question.
Second, you need to use the Crossfire to establish a point, not get your opponent to concede. So, for example, if your opponent agrees they do not have any evidence on a point, you can leave it at that. You do not want to say, “So then you concede, right?” Use your speeches to argue about what their lack of evidence (or other answer) means for the arguments and who is winning. No decent debater will concede defeat in the crossfire.
Third, debaters need to use crossfire time to further address critical issues in the debate. If a case as two contentions, and you think debaters will try to win the debate on one contention instead of the other contention, you should ask the questions about the contention you think they are going to go for. As noted, you only have a limited amount of time, so you should not spend Crossfire time on arguments you don’t think will be relevant. This will become more important as the debate progresses.
Asking Questions — Types of Questions
There are number of different types of questions that can be asked.
Explanation. Debaters underestimate the importance of this question, as they are afraid to ask about arguments they don’t understand, as they are afraid that asking the question will make them look weak. The problem is that if debaters do not ask the other team to explain arguments they do not understand, they will never be able to answer the argument, as it is impossible to answer an argument you don’t understand.
Evidentiary support. This is the one type of question that debaters are good at asking — Do you have any evidence that says X? It is establish to what arguments that other team has evidence to support, as evidentiary support is an important part of debate. Debaters also want to get the evidence in order to scrutinize it to see where the weaknesses are.
Weaknesses in evidence. Debaters are also pretty good at asking this type of question, though they need to improve their ability to look for specific weaknesses.
Quickly, these are some weaknesses debaters can probe —
Does the evidence actually establish the claim the debaters are making?
What is the warrant for the claim?
Is the evidence from a good source?
Is the author of the evidence qualified?
Is the evidence recent?
As noted, questions that probe evidence are popular for debaters and it is something they are likely to already feel comfortable with. Sometimes this type of questioning can be useful, but it is also important to ask other types of questions as well.
Set-up questions. Set-up questions are designed to get your opponents to say something damaging that they don’t realize is damaging. Since they don’t realize it is damaging, the trick is to get them to say it and then use it against them later in the debate.
So, for example, if the resolution calls for public health services (health services owned and operated by the government) to provide access to gene editing technology, you might ask Pro team how many people need access to gene editing technology. Pro teams will likely be excited to say that millions of people need access to it, which is only going to strengthen any argument you have about cost.
Attack questions. Debaters often want to ask questions that attack the other side’s argument. For example, debaters may say things like,
— You said, “School uniforms promote school unity,” but your evidence references a study where the students were from the same socioeconomic group, correct?
— You said, “The school uniforms program was effective at reducing school violence,” but you only cite on city, correct?
— You said, “You said that poverty declined when the program was adopted, but where is the evidence that the program caused the decline?”
When asking set-up questions, there are a few important things you need to do to make it work.
First, you don’t want to let on that a set-up question is coming. If your opponent knows a set-up question is coming, they are going to avoid giving you any answer, let alone the answer you want. You actually want to play a little dumb, and say something like, “How many people actually need gene editing therapy. Can’t they just go to a regular doctor?” In this case your opponent won’t think you are a great debater and will give you the answer.
Second, think of a way to ask it in a way that will get you an answer. If you ask, “Won’t this cost a lot of money?” If you ask that, they’ll say, “No.” This is obviously the opposite of what you want. To go back to the start of this chapter, remember to think ahead about what they will likely say to a question and how you will answer it.
Focusing on Certain Thing After Certain Speeches
As the debate progresses, the important arguments in the debate will become clearer. This is where the crossfire needs to focus.
The Crossfires after the Rebuttal need to focus on a few things.
New arguments. Although debaters are not supposed to make wholey new arguments in Rebuttal, they often do make new arguments — they often read what are essentially “add on” contentions. Since debaters have limited time to respond to these arguments, especially when the arguments are made in the second Rebuttal, they need to prioritize asking questions about these arguments in Crossfire after Rebuttals.
Responses to arguments you are going for. In most instances, debaters will only extend one of their contentions and argue that if they win that contention they should win the debate. Since debaters will usually not extend the other contention, they should not waste time asking questions about the other contention.
Turns. The one exception to what was just stated are turns. If a team makes a link or impact turn to a contention, Crossfire time should be spent on this argument, as defeating it is critical. If the other team wis a link turn or an impact turn, that is an automatic argument they have to weigh against the other team.
Generally, after the Rebuttal, debaters need to be thinking about what arguments they advanced in Constructive speeches they want to extend to win the debate on and what arguments their opponents are likely to try to win the debate on. They need to focus their questions on these arguments.
Also, after the Rebuttal, debaters should mostly be asking evidence and attack-related questions. It is too late to be setting up arguments and hopefully by then the debaters understand all of the arguments. An explanation question would only be asked if debaters did not understand an argument.
After the Summary speeches there is the Grand Crossfire. The Grand Crossfire is obviously different that all four debaters can ask and answer questions. With that in mind, there are important things to consider.
Direction. The Final Focus speaker is the one who knows what arguments he or she plans on winning the debate on and therefore knows what arguments the other team is making against those arguments that need to be defeated.
Both partners. While it makes sense for the Final Focus speaker to largely control the Crossfire, it is important that both debaters participate so that the judge will not think one partner is weak. Some lay judges have commented on ballots that it was bad that only one partner participated.
Types of Questions Not to Ask
In addition to understanding what types of questions you should ask, you also need to think of questions you should not ask.
This is my argument, how would you respond? This is a very popular type of question for debaters, but if you ask a question like this, you are just essentially giving your opponents speech time respond to arguments you made in your speech.
Do you agree with my argument? This is basically the same as what I just said; in this case, your opponent will just say that they do not agree and give many reasons why they do not agree. This is just free speech time for them.
Behaviors Not to Engage in in Crossfire.
Don’t be hostile/attack. Although you want to win a debate, being hostile and aggressive is likely to be a turn-off to your judge. You should aim to be confident and communicate that you are sure of yourself and your argument without attacking your opponent.
Don’t interrupt. You should generally not interrupt your opponent when they are answering unless they are answering for an excessive period of time (10-15 seconds).
Don’t ask the same questions. By this, it is not meant only that you should not repeat questions but also that you should not ask the same questions that your partner asked.
Don’t lock-in. It is important that you prepare for Crossfire by thinking of questions and answers ahead time, but don’t lock yourself in to any particular questions or answers. If something else comes up in the debate, adapt and use what you come up with.
When debaters do learn about Crossfire they are often just taught how to ask questions, but answering is also a critically important part of the time.
This section of the chapter covers how to best answer questions.
Explanations. The Crossfire is a great time to provide additional explanations of arguments when you originally didn’t have time to provide the explanation.
How do you know what else you need to explain?
Your own head. You may realize in your speech that you didn’t have time to explain certain arguments in your speech that need explanation. If you are asked about those arguments in Crossfire, you should take the time to explain.
For example, if in your speech you only had time to say that, School uniforms reduce disruptions,” but not to say why they reduce disruptions, you could offer an explanation in your speech. You might, for example, say that school uniforms create a sense of community and school pride that make it less likely that you will be disruptive to the school environment.
Detail. Even if you explained your argument well, you could use the time to add in more detail. You could give more examples, add in some statistics, search for something that stands out, etc.
The judge. During your speech you should always be looking at the judge to see if there is anything the judge looks confused or skeptical about. You could then use crossfire time to explain the argument to the judge or try to convince him/her. You can also closely watch the judge during the crossfire and try to determine if the judge now understand and/or is convinced.
Arguments you didn’t make. Some people might not take kindly to this suggestion, but you can use your Crossfire time to make some arguments you didn’t make in your speech if you are pressed for time (or if you just thought of them). Lay judges are not going to discount new arguments made in the Crossfire and you can always make them in subsequent speeches. There is, for example, no reason not to make an additional argument in Crossfire if they other team asks you.
Pivot. “Pivoting” in Crossfire refers to switching the subject of the questioning to something related that you want to talk about.
You may want to pivot for a couple reasons.
First, if you do not know the answer to a question or you do not want to answer it. In this case, you may want to pivot to something else. For example, if you do not know how to answer an argument that your evidence that supports the claim that school uniforms reduce violence is weak, you can pivot to talking about how school uniforms increase school cohesion. You can either try to tie that back to the violence argument or you can can just talk about it.
Second, if you have a point that you really want to make that you didn’t have a chance to make in your speech.
What are some other tips for answering?
Don’t commit. You generally want to answer questions clearly and decisively, but if you fear you are being set-up, then answer the question in a vague way. This will give you a chance to wiggle out of your answer later.
Know when to look weak and when to look strong. Although you generally don’t want to look weak in crossfire, it can be useful to look a little weak at the beginning of crossfire in order to mentally disarm your opponent; if your opponent thinks you are weak, they will be more likely to both give you the answers you want and to ask you softer questions.
Make arguments in your speeches. Don’t forget to bring up any relevant points that are established in crossfire in later speeches.
Limit answers. It is important to provide a thorough answer and to to take advantage of Crossfire time to say things you wanted to have time to say in your speech. At the same time, however, you should make sure to limit your time answering so that you have time to ask questions.
Always prioritize. There is only so much time to ask and answer questions, so be sure to prioritize the most important questions you want to ask and the answers you want to give.
The Crossfire is a very important part of the debate and its importance is often underestimated by debaters and their coaches. The Crossfire is so important not only because it constitutes almost one third of the debate but also because judges value it highly when making decisions.
To succeed in Public Forum debate, debaters and coaches need to take the Crossfire period seriously and prepare to excel in that portion of the debate. And preparation and execution involves both asking and answering questions.