March  31,  2020

As change and communication consultants, we emphasize the need for clear and consistent messaging from leaders about any change, big or small.

Inconsistent messaging from leaders only serves to confuse. Our recent COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. Things are changing from day to day and we’re getting different messages from county, state, and federal officials. We are allowed to go outside to exercise. Does that mean it’s ok to go to a park or the beach? Do we have to avoid passing others on the sidewalk? What’s the safest way to feed our families? Should we shop at a grocery store and cook at home or order takeout? Who should self-quarantine—those with symptoms or anyone who has traveled lately?

In confusing times—whether in the midst of a pandemic or a change in company policy, strategy, or organization—good communication follows the same principles.


People have to hear the same message at least seven times for it to stick. “Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water” or “Our focus for 2020 is reducing costs.” Either one would have to reach individuals over and over, through different channels, to change behavior.


Assume people don’t like to read. Give them the headlines. Use the same words again and again. Offer supporting information, but make sure the essentials are simple. “Stay at home.” “Wash your hands.” “Wear your hard hat.”

And, the bigger the audience, the simpler the message should be.


Ideally, our government leaders would agree on a common, standard message—not one for California, one for Texas, one for San Mateo County, one for San Bernardino County, one for Dallas, one for Houston—make sure all leaders answer the same question in the same way.

At Emerson, we recommend identifying four anchor words to ensure consistency of a message. Agree on the Problem you’re trying to solve, the Solution to the problem, the Approach you’ll take to solve the problem, and the Result you want. Land on one word each to describe the Problem, Solution, Approach, and Result. Those four words are your “message frame.” When speaking or writing about the challenge, everyone should use those four words to recall and tell the story. Use whatever facts and examples make sense to your audience, but stick to those four anchor words.

Multiple Senses

Appealing to more than one of our five senses helps people retain information. For example, as we hear the speaker saying something in plain terms we understand, we should see the same simple message. If you’ve ever viewed any of the TED talks, the best speakers use simple graphics in the background to illustrate their points. Wouldn’t it be more effective if, every time the President was at the podium, a few bullet points or a clear graphic behind him reinforced his message to the people?

In challenging times, when people are anxious or stressed, clear communication is more important than ever. Use these principles and your employees will thank you for it.