Extemp Content and Strategy

Cross-Examination in Extemp

In important rounds, you may have to cross-examine your opponents. In this article, we’ll delve into what cross-examination is and how to effectively do it. This article was written by Ananth Veluvali.

What is Cross-Examination?

Let’s start with an important question: what is cross-examination (CX)?

Put simply, cross-examination is a 2 or 3 minute period (depends upon the tournament) wherein you ask a few questions to your opponent about their opponent’s speech. Unlike debate, these questions aren’t supposed to be fast-paced or meant to get the other side to concede they are wrong; rather, they are meant to subtly reveal to the judges potential holes in your opponents’ arguments.

You will sit down after giving your speech and cross examine the speaker after you.  If you are last speaker, you will cross examine the first speaker in the round.  

While you can (and should) use a pen & paper to flow your opponent’s speech, it is unadvised to read off of that paper when conducting the CX period.

Below are two videos. The first is what most people think of when they think of cross-examination (CX) and the second is more akin to what cross-examination in extemp is.

Notice how cool both Connor (the cross-examiner) and Clay (the cross-examinee) are under pressure. They are both able to stand their ground: Connor, with his specific examples he pairs next to questions and Clay, who takes advantage of these questions to crystallize his points for the judges.

Some Cross-Examination Strategies for Asking Questions:

First off, before asking any questions, always congratulate your opponent on an excellent speech. Again, extemp CX ≠ debate CX, so politeness matters a lot more than you’d think.

Beyond that, here are a few things to consider when thinking of questions:

  • To inflict maximum damage, attack your opponent’s impacts or bring up important facts they did not consider in their speech.
  • Question any part of the speech that is vague or unclear – these are areas your opponent may not know much about.  
  • If stuck, ask for specific, quantitative details about your opponent’s evidence: “You said oil prices have dropped since 2012, but how much have they really gone down?” Again though, this is non-ideal, and mixed results will ensue.
  • Planning one question per point is an easy strategy, but not required; a smart strategy would be to hone in on the weakest point & tear it apart.
  • Keep your questions as concise as possible, while still trying to flex some knowledge. Again, reference Connor’s cross-examination to see how he does that.

Some Cross-Examination Strategies for Answering Questions:

  • If you need thinking time, ask them to rephrase the question – even if you understood perfectly the first time. Again though, this is non-ideal.
  • If they demand a yes/no answer, but it’s not a yes/no question, say, “What an excellent question!  It deserves a much better answer than just yes or no.”
  • Never say “yes but…” because your opponent will cut you off.  Put the qualifier BEFORE your answer. 
  • NEVER RAMBLE! Your judge will think you are being evasive, which implies you have something to hide.

I’m Going to Forget my Questions!

Ah, the biggest worry (and nightmare) of any cross-examiner. Here are two tricks to prevent you from forgetting your questions:

  • When your opponent gets to their conclusion, start memorizing your questions. You should aim for around 3-5 questions, since cross-examination will go by quicker than you think.
  • If you get stuck during the CX period, say something like “Your 3rd point said ____________, right?”  Then, use that time to gather your thoughts, quickly think through the logical holes in that point, and ask them a question about it. However, this is a non-ideal scenario; ideally, you don’t give them the opportunities to reiterate their points.

Does Cross-Examination Even Matter?

Put simply, the answer is complicated. Typically, you can’t win a round during cross-examination, but you can lose it — in other words, don’t fumble the bag during this period, and you’ll be fine!

Beyond that, how well you ask CX questions is often viewed as a tiebreaker between similarly skilled speakers, but not using your full CX time may count against you.

How well you answer CX questions varies from judge to judge — some people might drop you a rank for a poor cross-examination, while others will drop you to last place. Judges who coach debate tend to prioritize CX more heavily in their rankings, but there are no hard and fast rules.

Concluding Thoughts:

Cross-examination is a very fun part of an extemp round, as you get to directly interact with your competitor, putting them up to the test and seeing if they really know their speech. If you successfully cross-examine an opponent and open some holes in their speech, you could even change their rank!

With big tournaments like the ETOC and Nationals likely to use cross-examination in the important out-rounds of the tournament, you should try to practice having a coach or friend cross-ex you a few times at least.

Best of luck this season and happy practicing!

By Ananth Veluvali

Founder, the Extemper's Bible.

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