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Rock On! Debate LD #5: Asking Questions in LD with Coach Marcus Viney

Riddle me this: how should you ask questions in LD? Check this out for some clever ideas!


Episode Resources:

Episode 5 Handout
Download PDF • 55KB

Episode 5 Transcription:

My name is Marcus Viney, Head Coach of Cheyenne East, and this is, Episode 5: Asking Questions!

This time we’re talking about asking questions, something you’ll do in every single LD round (and sometimes after like, “wHaT hApPeNeD iN tHeRe?”). But before we jump in, it’ll be helpful to talk about some general debate strategy. In debate, two opposing sides struggle to win the judge’s vote, and there are two basic ways you can earn that vote. You can either tell the judge why you’re right or why your opponent is wrong. This is kind of like offense and defense in a basketball game. As we all know, a team wins if they have more points than the other team by the end of the game, and typically this involves preventing the other team from scoring. But the point here is that no matter how good a basketball team is at defending their basket, they can never win without playing some offense too, that is, without also scoring some points. The same is true in debate. It’s never enough to tear down your opponent’s arguments and say why they’re wrong. You also have to advance your own arguments and explain why you’re right. As it turns out, the concepts of offense and defense apply really well to asking questions.

In cross-examination, a “defensive” question is one that aims to poke a hole in your opponent’s argument. An “offensive” question, by contrast, advances one of your arguments. But let’s focus on defense for a moment. Recall that one common pattern of argument is a link-and-impact story. Because we can identify different parts of an argument, we can ask questions about those parts and see if they make sense. So let’s go back to the example from last time. Say your opponent makes the argument that schools shouldn’t ban energy drinks because doing so will cause student anger and unrest. The first thing we can do is ask questions about their “link story.” How do we know, for example, that there isn’t another reason why the students would be angry? In this school, would the students be angry anyway, with or without the ban? We could also ask about the warrant for this link—why should we think this is true in the first place? Has it ever happened before? Have other schools dealt with student unrest because of energy-drink bans? How many and where exactly? Now, let’s say that our opponent is super prepared, and has answers for all of these link-story questions. We could also ask about their “impact story,” or why the ban is supposedly so harmful. For example, how many students will be mad about this and how mad will they be? How long will the anger last, and why is a little student anger so bad anyway? What is the harm exactly?

To recap: the two basic strategies of defensive questions are to cast doubt on the link or the impact. This makes the judge begin to wonder: “will the change really cause that outcome?” and even if it does, “how bad would it be?” This can be powerful, but notice that, at best, defensive questions can only tear down your opponent’s arguments, or in the basketball analogy, “block their shot.” This is where offensive questions can help because they can “score points” or give “airtime” to your arguments. First, we will need to make an argument. Let’s say our argument is that schools should ban energy drinks because they’re dangerous for teenagers and have been linked to hospitalizations and even some deaths. With this in hand, we can ask a direct or comparative question for some bite or offense. A direct offensive question forces your opponent to confront your argument directly. For example: Why should a school endorse something that endangers the lives of their students? This is powerful because it puts your opponent on the defensive, but more importantly, reminds the judge of your position. We can also ask a comparative offensive question that places your argument right next to theirs, like this: Even if what you say is right and the ban will cause some anger, wouldn’t that be worth preventing hospitalizations or even one death? Notice this question grants your opponent’s argument, but then weighs it against the bigger harm that you want the judge to think about. There’s no perfect formula for how to generate these questions, but, I promise, the more you practice, the better you will get.

Luckily there are some fun activities that will help you sharpen your skills. The first is “Offense or Defense?” an exercise where you try to identify whether a question is offensive or defensive. Once you’re done, try making some of your own. The next one is called “Ridiculous Arguments.” Here a volunteer debater will plan to defend a “ridiculous” or indefensible resolution to give other debaters the chance to practice asking endless questions. Topics include things like “students should be required to break a leg before graduating high school” or “all public restrooms should be accompanied by a clown.” *Shiver. This has the added benefit of allowing the defender to practice calmness in the face of difficult questioning. The last activity is “Titan Challenge,” where one debater is the “titan” and everyone else is on a team to take them down (kind of like Thanos and the Avengers but I can’t get sued). The handout contains a pre-written case with 8 arguments designed to have all kinds of problems. The team can divide up offensive and defensive duties, and try to snap the titan before he snaps you. Enough for now, talk to you next time!

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