Getting to Know Jim

Moment of Truth

The moment had come. Time to step up to the plate. I rose from the packed bench. It was full of raucous, rough-and-tumble kids. Blue collar Chicago neighborhood middle school adolescents like I was. We were playing softball in eighth-grade gym class. Not fun. At least not for me.

I started toward home plate to take my turn at bat. I knew it was coming. It always did.

“Zboran’s up to bat!”

There it was. The shot to kick off the volley of jeering. Mockery and catcalling commenced. Nothing different about this than before. This particular ritual had roots going back to grammar school. Fellow students from earlier years had cultivated and maintained the tradition.

The long walk to the plate included groans from my own team. This time with an extra measure of woe. Three other players were loading the bases. Two outs, bases loaded, and Zboran up to bat. Very bleak outlook. “Casey at the bat,” I was not.

Ignoring the catcalls, mockery, and threats of physical harm, I toed the plate. I watched the entire outfield move in close. They made a show of moving in almost up to the base-line. Based on past performance, it wasn’t a risky tease.

I readied the bat. Mr. Hruby, the gym teacher, had handed it to me as I approached the plate. A look of hopeless resignation peeked through the neutral face he attempted to put on. I didn’t blame him.

Everyone turned their attention to the unfolding play. My focus zeroed-in on the pitcher. With a sneer on his face, the pitcher swung his arm back. Underhanded, he brought it forward and released the ball. It began its arc of a journey towards me. My eyes, focused with tunnel vision, locked onto the ball.

Bat held with firm grip high. Off the shoulder. Slightly crouched body. Rear foot braced firmly against the ground. I drew my foreleg back with a smooth motion as the ball approached. And then it was time. I stepped forward explosively and decisively into the swing, uncoiling my body, bring the bat to meet the ball.

“Thwaaap!”

Solid hit! It flew off my bat fast. And low. Just high enough to mock stunned opponents in their moment of disbelief. They jumped and reached with outstretched hands. Still, they couldn’t get hold of the ball any more than they could grasp this unexpected turn of events.

The ball continued its journey unhindered. Far into the freshly vacated outfield. Cries of incrimination from infielders followed scrambling outfielders. I was scrambling too. Around the bases for a home run.

Surprised and disbelieving teammates cheered. Especially loudly. A great chance to add to the frustration being felt at the moment by the opposing team. They all thought it must have been luck. But it wasn’t. They didn’t know it, but the real reason for my success sat about 150 feet away from us that day.

The answer sat on a shelf in the public library across the street from the school. It was in a book teaching skills to boys playing in Little League baseball. The blue hard cover book with a clear plastic cover had caught my eye at the end of the previous school year. It contained a section of instruction on batting a baseball better.

A flash of insight came when I saw it. Maybe hitting a baseball is a skill that can be learned. I had always just assumed it was a talent I didn’t have. I checked the book out and brought it home.

I read through the step-by-step instructions. I played out every detail of each step in my imagination. I practiced with a wiffle ball and bat in my backyard. Evening news provided sporting clips of home run hits to further fine-tune the mental picture forming. A few odd summer picnic softball games added to my experience. And then the fall season and eighth grade rolled back around.

But this time I was a little bit different. I had learned a powerful new truth. Talents and skill I lacked could be learned. All I needed was the right source of information and the effort to figure out how to apply it. That was the real home-run I hit that year, long before I ever stepped up to the plate that day in eighth-grade gym class softball.

Off the Cuff and Into the Heart

I sat stunned. In a good way. A sudden flash of insight. My eyes stared at the words the page. My mind focused in on the implication of what I had just read. I love when that happens!

I was staring at the book in my hands. A randomly acquired book. My mother in Illlinois had purchased it at a used book sale. She included it in one of her eclectic “care packages”. She often sent them to me. I was in Missouri. Serving as an ordained minister in a small rural congregation.

It was a situation well suited to my preference for working with people on a close basis. I tend to like working with fewer people at a deeper level. But for some reason, I still wasn’t gaining much traction in helping people grow. Sunday morning messages were politely received. But they weren’t making the kind of impact I thought they could. It wasn’t for lack of preparation. That’s for sure.

The pathway to my goal had included plenty of educational preparation. I had earned a B.A. degree in Biblical Theology with a Biblical Greek minor. And I didn’t stop there. I’ve always been drawn to human nature, human expression, and the human experience. So I continued my education with an excursion into the humanities.

I ended up with another B.A. degree. This one in Creative Writing with a communications minor. All good and well. For me. Apparently not good enough accomplish what I wanted to with my audience.

As a leader, I naturally want to influence people to take action. As an ethical leader, I naturally want that action to be in their own best self-interest. That usually starts with instilling a vision for what can be. Then sparking a desire to pursue that vision. Finally, it involves coaching and nurturing that spark into a blaze. A blaze that takes on a life of its own. But none of that was happening at the moment. The book in my hand, however, presented me with the key to making that happen.

It was a book written for deacons of a different faith tradition than my own. It gave instruction on preparing and delivering homilies. Not a part of my faith tradition either. But a homily is a short form of commentary on a scripture. That was relevant to me. That’s why I decided to read it and see what I could glean from it to improve my own communication skills. And what I gleaned turned out to be revolutionary to my communication style from that point on.

The concept was simple. Yet profound. Most listeners in an audience are hearing what the speaker has to say for the first time. They shouldn’t be expected to grasp in one short sitting what had taken the speaker a number of hours of study and reflection to prepare. To help guard against this, the author suggested the speaker limit notes to one 3X5 card.

I had been spending a number of hours in research, thought, grappling with texts, formulating ideas and applications. I was growing a lot and the ideas were important and relevant to me. But I was trying to package all of that into 45 minutes so those hearing me would get the same benefit. But it didn’t work that way.

Could I deliver the same sermons using just a 3X5 index card of notes? No. What I was delivering would have been adequate for teaching a class in seminary. But my audience needed something different. Something they could grasp quickly, get excited about, and apply in their daily lives.

I decided to pursue my professional studies to grow me personally, and not to teach to others. Then on Sunday I would present something relevant to my audience. But what I presented would come from my own experience. Something I had learned as a result of my own growth. Instead of an index card, I would use no notes. I just shared from my heart what my experience was and my vision of what it meant for them. In keeping with the context of our meetings, I included relevant passages of scripture. My audience could read them and draw their own conclusions. I was appealing to the heart, but following up with supporting information for the mind. The difference was amazing.

Immediately, the sermons took on a conversational quality. There was more engagement which grew quickly into active input. Sermons could take twists and turns according to immediate feedback from the audience. My message couldn’t be thrown off track, because there was no predetermined track.

Sunday morning services took on a form of a guided discussion with me leading. We discussed relevant to the audience at the moment as it unfolded. And most importantly, people began to grow.

I love when that happens.

Yet Another Breakthrough

“Yesss!” The book had arrived! My own copy of “Breakthrough Advertising” by Eugene Schwartz. A personal hero of mine in the world of direct response copywriting. The book, a classic industry text, had been long out of print. Every once in a while I would check Amazon to see if I could find a used copy. There was always one available at $999. I wanted it, but not that bad. Yet.

And then one day a copy came up at $100. That worked for me! I quickly ordered it. And now it had arrived. Opening the package, I gave another “Yesss!” cheer. It looked brand-new. I doubt it had ever been read. I read it for the first time. And then I read it again.

For a long time that copy of ‘Breakthrough Advertising’ was one of my proudest possessions. It’s still a prized possession. But at this point I’ve decked out a nice library of copywriting works by ‘the masters’. But this was the first I owned that offered a direct connection with a personal hero. Yes, I’m kind of a copywriting geek. How did it get to that point?

I was a young boy during the pre-internet era. Direct mail marketing was well established and my dad was on many mailing lists. Virtually all mailed promotional pieces ended up in his home office trash can. From there, they were fair game for my reading pleasure. My interest originally was in the scrap paper. Then I began reading the pages I had fished from the trash. They opened up whole new areas of awareness and interest for me.

A world of opportunity, solutions, tools, gadgets, books and reports. Amazing things discovered in remote corners all over the world. Exciting new breakthroughs! Every piece carried the potential of revealing something new and interesting to me.

Even though I wasn’t interested in many of the products, I enjoyed learning about them. And the products I wanted? I imagined what I could do with them. Dreams launched from the promises of the copywriters. Visions inspired through the window of a piece of junk mail.

Maybe it was an inevitable next step. I had already developed an intense interest in ads appearing in the many comic books I owned. I studied them even more carefully than the comics themselves. Exciting new electronic gadgets advertised by Joe Sugarman in his JS&A mailings triggered me the same way. And who could not be fascinated by Mel Martin’s intriguing bullet points.

I was growing up. And that meant the price of my toys was growing too. Not that I had money to buy any of them. It’s just that I had to dream of bigger dollars to buy those more expensive toys someday.

Maybe that’s why a definite entrepreneurial streak began to develop in my early teens. Direct marketing offers presented endless business opportunities. I sought out books about becoming a mail order success. My head was often filled with visions of my very own post office box stuffed full of orders. Along with payment for some yet-to-be-determined book I would write and sell myself. By direct mail of course. It wasn’t that I wanted to write a book. But I definitely wanted to sell one by direct mail. And make millions while I was at it, of course.

As time marched forward, so my plans were set in different directions. But I still had a love for well crafted and fascinating direct mail pieces. When I started having money of my own, I began buying information products advertised in them. Eventually the internet became established.

A new window to the world for me. I chanced upon a copywriting course offered by A-list copywriter John Carlton. I looked up some of his direct response promotions. Turns out it wasn’t the first time I’d seen them. In fact, I’d products as a direct result of his persuasive words. I wanted to be able to do that! I bought one of his courses.

I began looking for more information on crafting persuasive copy. I found a treasure trove of information. I had a growing desire to develop the ability to lead and influence in print. Studying copywriting became a hobby of mine. I enrolled in a foundational course with a premiere copywriting training company. And then another course. And then some more.

And so, in yet another aspect, my life came around full circle again. But now with greater purpose. I had been focused on helping people become the best possible version of themselves they can be. But I did that on a small scale, leading individuals to be all they could be. First as pastor, then as life coach.

Now, as copywriter, I lead markets to products that offer opportunities to bring about positive life-change. Yet another breakthrough to say ‘Yesss!’ to everytime I think about it.