Cross-Examination: Using Closed-Ended Questions

The art of cross-examination is probably one of the most under-appreciated aspects of policy debate. It is the only opportunity you have to directly interact with your opponent, yet a majority of debaters do not know how to optimally utilize their three minutes. Not only do most debaters fail to ask the right questions, they also neglect to phrase their questions strategically. Today's blog will deal with the latter question.

What do I mean by phrasing a question? Consider the following choices:

A. How much does your plan cost?
B. Your plan costs $50 million, correct?

Which of these two is the correct phrasing of the question?

The answer is B. Let's discuss why.

Option A is what is known as an open-ended question. An open-ended question is exactly what it sounds like - something your opponent can answer in almost any fashion he or she wishes to do so in. An open ended question not only allows your opponent to give any answer he or she likes, it also allows them to spend as much time and detail as they would like in answering the question.

When you ask an open-ended question, what you have done is you have “opened the door” for your opponent - they are not answering your question, they are explaining why their side of the story is correct to the judge. Skilled debaters are excellent at abusing this - they can turn an innocent question like "how much does the plan cost" into a convincing 45 second narrative that spins the story in such a way as to deflect the intent of the original question while simultaneously making their case sound much more awesome.

On the other hand, Option B is a closed ended question. A closed-ended question is one that has a limited number of possible responses “Your plan costs one $50 million, correct?” is a closed-ended question - there are only two possible responses. The answer is either yes or no. There is no middle ground to choose from. The answer is not "$50 million dollars, but that's okay because our funding mechanism....blah blah blah..." It's a yes or no question.

Why are closed-ended questions beneficial? There are a few reasons. They let you control the flow of the cross-examination. It ensures that you are the one doing most of the talking - instead of your opponent babbling on, you get to aggressively dictate the terms of the exchange and shape it in ways that benefit you. Plus, you won’t need to interrupt your opponent. You can also make them sound stupid because they won’t be able to justify any of their answers. That allows you to set the stage for your next speech.

Now of course, if you're being cross-examined, you can try to weasel your way out of closed-ended questions. The best way to do this is by referencing evidence.

Them: "Your plan costs $50 million, correct?"
You: Our Smith 2009 evidence indicates that the ultimate budgetary savings would work out to about half a billion dollars, so even though the plan costs $50 million it would basically pay for itself.

If you are the cross-examiner, you must be aggressive when you deal with this. Don't allow them to finish - cut them off as soon as they get a few words into their answer. Be forceful, but don't be rude. Raise your hand is cue a stop and say "no, no, no - it's a yes or no answer." Don't yell or scream, because judges absolutely will not tolerate that.

If you're still confused about the distinction between open and closed-ended questions, post a comment and I will help you out the best I can

- Nick