The Road to Understanding

A good few years ago I cut my teeth in training working for a brilliant trainer who had a simple mantra:

“When training people, just help them to understand.”

He then drew a road on a piece of paper.  There was a big billboard down the end of the road with the word “understanding” written on it.

He continued:

“Imagine you’re walking down this road with the group of people you are training. You hold their hands, and lead them to down this road to the “understanding” billboard.

From time to time, a few people will drop off.  They’ll lose focus, get bored, start thinking about other stuff.”

“An inept trainer will plough on towards the billboard and leave the others by the roadside. A good trainer will stop for a moment, grab those who have dropped off, and continue as a group.”

“Sure, it slows down the training a little, but you can’t afford to let people drop off, because everyone deserves the complete journey to understanding.  And if you’re good enough, you’ll challenge the rest of the group to help the others as well.”

It really resonated with me, and to this day I keep it in mind when training people.

More than training

I think it’s a handy analogy for more than just training. It’s the best way to think about presenting or communicating an idea, or selling something.

Because we are close to our subject, and know what we are talking about, it’s easy to assume that others do too.


So we take shortcuts. We shorten 10 steps down to 3 steps. To use the road analogy, over time we work out shortcuts to make it towards the understanding billboard a lot quicker.  But in doing so might be be guilty of losing understanding in those around us?

The best trainers, salespeople or presenters have worked out that that the best way to achieving mutual consensus, buy-in and results, is to help people understand.

Forget everything else. Just help them to understand.

Easy to say, but how do you go about it?

Here’s a few tips:

1. Present things in different ways

It’s a well known fact that people comprehend meaning in different ways. It helps to present messages in ways that will appeal to different people.

“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”.  Sun Tzu

Too much talking and not enough showing  and you’ve potentially lost half of your group.

Mix up the ways you talk.  Vary your speech.  Demonstrate using some audience members.  Mix up PPT with boards, or flipcharts, or other visual aids.

2. Use examples, analogies and scenarios

Examples bring things to life. You can never use too many to help aid understanding. Done well, you can see the understanding grow in the room.

Analogies are strong ways of creating understanding as well. Comparing a concept to something common to us all – the weather, childhood experiences, sport – give a base level of understanding that help people relate.

Scenarios are also strong. Put people in the moment by asking them to “imagine” something. Talk to them directly, by using the word “you”. The road to understanding at the beginning of this article is an example of the “imagine” scenario.

3. Check-point frequently

Despite your best efforts, it’s handy to checkpoint with the audience at regular intervals. A simple way to do this is to say “Does that make sense?”. This form of indirect involvement helps to keep people on track. Of course it also gives them the ability to ask a question if they need to.

Ensure you avoid saying “Do you understand?”. This puts the blame onto the group, rather than you. Potentially this can be a bit demeaning.

Another way of check-pointing would be to say “Any questions, comments, or feedback?”, or “How are we up to this point? Everyone ok?”.

The point is:  Understanding is the king of communication.  There’s other ways to aid understanding, and you probably have a few of your own.

If so, let me know and I’ll publish them.

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