Crossfire is a unique and important feature of the Public Forum debate format. The three crossfire sessions last a combined nine minutes - about 20% of an entire Public Forum debate round. How should debaters approach the crossfire? This article offers three tips for improving crossfire strategy.
1) View Crossfire Like a Game of Ping Pong
Imagine a professional game of ping pong. Both players are constantly mobile, they strategically aim at vulnerable areas of the table to bypass their opponent’s defenses, and they switch up the speed of the ball to throw off their opponent. Now, imagine a ping pong game where both players stand relatively still, they aim at the same spot of the table every time, and they try to use the maximum amount of force they can without making the ball miss the table. The first game has complex strategic dimensions. The strategy of second game is simply to use brute force.
Many debaters try to approach crossfire like the second game of ping pong - their crossfire strategy is one of brute force. The debaters may initially ask questions, but ultimately they try to argue endlessly and butt heads with their opponents. Unsurprisingly, this does not result in strategic concessions from the opposing team. Opponents will almost never agree that they are wrong about an important issue in a debate.
To avoid this, debaters should translate the contentions they want to make into question form. Questions are not about forcing an opponent into agreement. Questions are like strategically aimed shots. They are trickier, and might throw off a prepared opponent. A strategic and mobile ping pong player will often beat a player that reduces ping pong to a game of brute force. Similarly, approaching crossfire with prepared questions instead of arguments is a superior approach.
Opponents will almost never agree that they are wrong about an important issue in a debate.
2) Consider the Purposes of Crossfire
Crossfire serves several purposes in a Public Forum debate round. Crossfire can be used to get information from opponents, provide information to the judge, and to dismantle an opponents’ arguments. Crossfire also functions as preparation time for the partner that is not participating. If a question or answer does not fulfill one of these major purposes it is likely a poor use of crossfire time.
Getting information requires asking precise questions. These questions are often concise, specific, and direct. In contrast, super general, lengthy, and indirect questions often give opponents the wiggle room to avoid answering the question in the ways the asking debater would have hoped for.
Effectively providing information to the judge requires well-structured questions and answers. Debaters should practice providing clear and straight-forward explanations.
Dismantling an opponents’ arguments requires strategic vision, which comes best from planning.
Getting information requires asking precise questions. These questions are often concise, specific, and direct.
3) Debaters Should Plan and Practice Crossfire
Many students come to debate tournaments without preparing for crossfire. Planning plays a large role in preparing effective crossfire questions and answers. When preparing for a tournament, a team should predict what the major arguments on each side of the topic will be and therefore what the major arguments against their cases will be. They should then think about the weaknesses of these arguments and prepare answers and crossfire questions.
When preparing questions, a team should simulate crossfire. This can also be done alone. Practicing switching sides can give insight into how an opponent is likely to react. How will opponents respond to the question? What follow up question would be effective? How will they respond to the follow up question? Debaters should then reshape their questions to be more effective.
Debaters should have a goal when asking questions. What is the strategic value of the question? What answers would a team want their opponents to answer with? What answers would be difficult to ask a follow-up question on? How can the question be reshaped to mitigate the chance of difficult answers arising? Or possibly, debaters may discover that a question is not strategic and instead of reshaping the question they may decide not to use it.
Debaters should approach the answers to questions similarly. What is the likely strategic goal of the opponents’ questions? What answers best deny them access to this goal? Which answers best build up the arguments being made in speeches? Answers can also be improved greatly by simulating crossfire.
Practicing crossfire is about learning the flow of the back and forth exchanges and how to control and navigate them.
Ultimately, practicing crossfire is about learning the flow of the back and forth exchanges and how to control and navigate them. These tips should serve as a starting point for debaters who are hoping to get better at Public Forum debate; effective crossfire strategies separate good and great debaters.