Remove Communication Barriers with Key Words at Key Times

KK Owen, Melissa Matarazzo

In Brief

5-Minute Read

When used incorrectly, communication can build a barrier between people in the workplace. Time is often wasted trying to clarify and reiterate information. Employees become frustrated and disengaged when there is a lack of understanding. People depend on leaders to deliver clear, effective messages that inspire a vision and drive us to act.


  • Unclear communication is a major factor is misalignment, disengagement and misunderstanding in organizations.

  • Key worded messaging can be systematized using a tool to drive a process for building communication.

  • To build effective key-worded messages, leaders should consider the information, intended outcome and the audience.

Choosing Key Words to Build a Strong Relationship

Communication is foundational to relationships. Without effective communication, trust begins to deteriorate. Key words help to strengthen relationships with teams, employees, colleagues, friends and family. Consistent messaging with key words in mind builds the alignment necessary to accelerate organizational performance. Leaders can use a Key Words at Key Times template and ensure that they are intentionally planning key words into all communication.

What is “Key Words and Key Times”?

Key Words at Key Times is a concept and a tool used to intentionally connect the dots for people. It means saying the right thing, to the right person, at the right time and in the right way. Using a tool to drive this behavior helps leaders carefully select words and phrases that communicate important information in a way that is designed for the audience and focused on the outcome.

Here are some examples of designing a message around the intended outcome and then building in key words to achieve that outcome:

If you are trying to… You might say…

Support. Start with something positive. What does your leader do well? Tell them.

  • I can see how frustrated you are.
  • I care about your experience as a colleague.
  • It sounds like you are very upset.
  • You seem to be feeling so__________.

Listen and question without agreeing, disagreeing or taking sides.

  • Who did you take your concern to?
  • Am I the first person you’ve talked to?
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • What resolution are you seeking?
  • How can I help you in this situation?

Commit to something.

  • Let me help you practice that tough conversation.
  • I am committing to resolving this situation.
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • I want you to know that we are committed to service excellence and so__________.

Hand-over a situation or customer, parent or concerned party.

  • Can I walk you to the classroom, where I know you’ll want to talk directly to the teacher?
  • I am going to connect you with ______, who is ____________ (positive description).
  • I know that ________ would want to know ________. How can I help you start that conversation?
  • What resolution are you seeking?

Four Steps to Strategically Build a Message That Appeals to the Audience

  1. Determine the outcome to be achieved and the most important information listeners will need to know.
  2. Consider the best language to use to get to the desired outcome. What word choices may be better than others? What messages may have a negative connotation? How can you avoid those?
  3. Follow the why-what-how communication sequence. Start by explaining why this information is important to the audience, give them the information and outline how this information will be translated to action.
  4. Plan to give listeners an opportunity to ask questions and demonstrate their understanding.

When to Use Key Words at Key Times

Key worded messaging is crucial in all communication— meetings, emails, one-on-one connections, social media, etc. Leaders can use key words to respond to a complaint about a colleague or decision or to prevent rumors and speculation from spreading.

Five Opportunities for Leader to Practice Key Words at Key Times

As decisions are communicated. People have an easier time trusting and supporting decisions when communication about them is clear and transparent. The use of key words to communicate our decision-making process builds trust and confidence in our ability to lead the situation.

When internal or external forces create disruption or uncertainty. People are looking to their leaders for strength, stability and understanding in times like these.

If resilience is needed. During times of high anxiety or confusion, thoughtfully crafting key words at key times can help align clear and specific communication.

While rolling out results to employees, communities or other invested groups. Leaders plan key messages to share results with teams in a way that focuses on improvement and why change is needed.

When you want to create an impact. A small shift in language can have a vastly different outcome in the power behind the message.

Good communication is the key difference between confusion and clarity. It’s critical for leaders to develop messages that are well-written, build trust and reduce anxiety. Leaders don’t have all of the answers. They can still have great impact by focusing on what is most important to their teams. Effective communicators connect the dots for others in a way that enhances understanding and lead to the desired outcome.


To lead a high-performing school system, leaders in education must:
  • Think differently.
    Recognize that communication is more than delivering a message and should be strategically designed to serve the audience and the outcome.
  • Plan differently.
    Shift from reactive to proactive communication by planning messages with strategic key words in advance.
  • Act differently.
    Transform communication from an act to a process by using a standardized tool to plan and deliver messages.

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