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Mixed Markets, Mixed Messages, Learning Styles

Are you in the business of teaching? Or guiding, or coaching, or consulting?

About 40 years ago a guy named Jack taught me his job in a sugar processing plant. He ran two enormous liquid vats that used acid and pressure to melt sugar into a liquid that could be carried to food processing plants inside big tanks in huge trailer trucks. Sugar poured through a conveyer system into the vats. We added acid, cooked about 15 minutes under pressure, and then sent the hot liquid through pipes to the loading dock.

There was a life-threatening possibility of letting the pressure get too high, which would have caused an explosion. And since I’m here writing this, you can guess that I didn’t make that mistake.

Jack showed me how to do it once. He didn’t explain the theory. He didn’t give me anything to read. No diagrams, no lists. He went through it once, then sat on the sidelines, smiled, smoked, and watched me struggle.

Once he said quietly “you have about a minute before you blow us both up.” I guessed right, and solved the problem.

Once the sugar didn’t come out of the conveyor the way I expected. It seemed to have disappeared. A minute went by, and Jack just smiled. The minute became five, maybe 10 minutes. Jack handed me a shovel, directed me to follow the conveyor path and find the mess. Sure enough, I’d run conveyors the wrong way, and had created a room in the plant that was about five feet high with sugar. It was 10 minutes worth of sugar dumped in the wrong place.  It took me two eight-hour shifts shoveling sugar in a concrete-walled room with only one window to clean up the mess. That’s not a pleasant job. The air fills with sugar. You sweat. But I learned not to screw up the sugar’s path to the vats.

There are as many different learning styles as there are people. Is there a right way? No. People are so delightfully different. Some learn by doing, but some can’t do anything without learning first. Some read by skimming, some read in detail, some don’t read at all. Some people learn by doing, while some want to have it done for them. Some like classes, some want one-on-one instruction.

I really like sharper target marketing. John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing, for example, suggests profiling your ideal target customer as part of the marketing plan. I’ve carried that suggestion forward myself. It makes sense. Make that person real. If you want, call that a persona.

And I think for a lot of businesses it takes some wisdom to recognize that the ideal target customer is different for each business offering. If you’re in one of these teaching businesses, you have to match your teaching style, and your subject matter, to your target customer’s learning style. You can’t pretend to vary the offering to match the client’s style.

I think this is the harder part of marketing in the coaching or consulting business. Your target has a learning style issue, and your offering can’t possibly address more than a few teaching or helping or coaching styles. You need a match.

Everybody needs to know what I have to offer, sure; but not everybody wants to learn it the way I want to teach it.

Consider this: “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Oh, and by the way, towards the end of the summer I set a sugar processing plant record for production in one shift.


  • Sarah says:

    Excellent article-
    The best way to learn is to be in an environment where you can make and correct your owmn mistakes-
    Then you won't make them again!!

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