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Triggers and Handles

Improvisation is mostly associated with theatre, where actors create a story (sometimes humorously) without a predetermined script. To develop consistency, improvisational performers use many techniques, one of which is an exercise called “triggers and handles“. This exercise can be quite useful, especially when developing consistency among “team” members.

A trigger is a word, or a short phrase, that is used in a particular way (handle). A trigger may have many possible handles, and handles may be prompted by many possible triggers — but the goal is to keep those expressions to a minimum.

For example, suppose the improv-actor is given a task of playing a security guard. The trigger phrase is “security guard”. The trick is to decide which handle to play with that trigger to create a specific expression. Out of the thousands of possible ways to play a security guard, the skilled actor limits the choices to only a few types, such as: militant, anal-retentive, buffoon, and maybe lethargic. These are the handles. Depending on the handle selected, the scene will play out differently.

To apply this same technique to your own scripts, make a list of trigger words that occur in your particular industry or environment. For each trigger, find three or four possible handles or expressions that might be used when the trigger is mentioned.

So, if the phrase “over budget” is considered a trigger, which may be mentioned to you during a presentation or discussion, then perhaps your different handles for that trigger might be: show supporting evidence; prove otherwise; and, shift focus. The chosen handle functions as your response strategy once you are prompted by the trigger.

If you can identify a number of triggers, and agree on the corresponding handles, you can develop a consistency among those who present similar content in repetitive situations. For teams, groups, or departments, this is an excellent way to get everyone “on the same” page, telling the same story, in order to advance concepts. In developing your “list”, those people with the most experience in a situation are likely to come up with the best handles for given triggers.

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