Joseph Ortiz

Back-to-School Tips 2018: Trigger Scripts

Blog Post created by Joseph Ortiz on Aug 30, 2018

Dr. Ortiz is an author of Choices and Connections, and has taught for over 30 years, beginning in 1983 at Clovis Community College (NM). He joined the Scottsdale Community College faculty in 1989, where he teaches courses on human communication, interpersonal and small group communication, and digital storytelling. In support of student learning, Dr. Ortiz is heavily involved in the use of classroom assessment tools, service learning, collaborative learning methods, and the use of online technology. Below, read more about one of his teaching methods, the use of trigger scripts.


Competing with the commotion of memes, Spotify playlists, viral videos, and Instagram postings that consume our students’ attention, teachers must somehow design lessons that invite interest in our subject matter. Among the various ways we can catch and hold student attention is to use instructional activities that they will find intellectually stimulating and relevant to their lives (Bolkan & Griffin, 2018). A strategy that I’ve found helpful for engaging students is the use of trigger scripts for introducing a lesson.


A trigger script is a vignette that conveys a communication-based dilemma, and a resolution or conclusion is not provided. Trigger scripting evolves out of the work of performance studies scholars who use excerpts from literature for the expressed purpose of promoting audience discussion about social issues (Valentine & Valentine, 1983). Vignettes can be crafted out of literature; or in my case, I’ve simply employed my imagination and creative writing aspirations to fashion trigger scripts. Here’s one example, which I’ve entitled, “I’ll be 2 hours late”:


You’re out running errands when your romantic partner text messages you that s/he’ll be about two hours late coming home from work. You decide to stop at the mall to kill some time. About 30 minutes later, you pass by a patio bar and see your partner with three other co-workers having drinks. One of the co-workers is someone that you have long suspected is attracted to your partner. How would you feel? What would you do?


I use this trigger script as a basis for starting a lesson on communication competence and its characteristics in my introductory interpersonal communication course. When I present this in class, I always give students time to think and write a response to the two questions before moving them to small discussion groups. I give the small groups two ground rules: (1) You’re not trying to agree on the right answer, and (2) Don’t go “Dr Phil” on anyone (i.e., avoid judgment).



The energy in the room is palpable during the small group discussion, and it reaches a crescendo when I debrief the entire class. Students state that they would feel deceived, jealous, outraged, and some mention that they’d be unfazed because they trust their partners. The discussion then leads us to examine what it means to be effective, appropriate, and ethical in forming a communicative response to this situation. We also begin exploring concepts of perspective-taking and behavioral flexibility.


In addition to writing your own trigger scripts or excerpting them from literature, you can draw vignettes from film and television programs. A television program that is a ready made trigger script is the ABC program; What would you do? I use an episode that pertains to a disruptive baby in a fine dining restaurant for introducing the unit on conflict. I start the lesson by posing the dilemma orally:


You’re at an upscale restaurant (I ask them to name an expensive one in the city) to celebrate a special occasion. A baby at an adjacent table starts to get fussy, eventually crying loudly. How would you respond?


Student responses range from ignoring the disruption (avoidance) to giving the parents a menacing stare (passive aggressive). We then watch the episode in class (c. 8 minutes). The trigger script serves as a springboard for a classroom discussion about the various styles of responding to conflict, including a consideration of the personal, cultural, and relational factors that impact how we respond to conflict.


Although I use trigger scripts for classroom instruction, the strategy certainly can be adapted for online teaching by using discussion forums. Whether it’s in the classroom or online, the management of student attention is increasingly tough to do, but it’s an important prerequisite to learning. The judicious use of a trigger script is a practical way of engaging students to see the the personal relevance of the topics we teach.            




Bolkan, S.  & Darrin J. Griffin, D. J.  (2018) Catch and hold: instructional interventions and their differential impact on student interest, attention, and autonomous motivation, Communication Education, 67:3, 269-286, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2018.1465193


Valentine, K. B.  & D. E. Valentine, D. E. (1983) Facilitation of intercultural communication through performed literature, Communication Education, 32:3,303-307, DOI: 10.1080/03634528309378546