Charlie Fern's Ink

Do what you say. Say it in color.

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Name: Charlie Fern
Location: San Diego-Austin-Washington-London

Charlie Fern is a former White House speechwriter who runs a full-scale communications consulting, PR and speechwriting firm. Ms. Fern is also an adjunct professor who teaches public relations at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Case Study: Dryel can hang the competition out to dry with ads that target the newly budget-conscious

I recently saw a commercial for Dryel (a home dry-cleaning product), and I had one of those “Aha!” moments. Dry-cleaning is one of the first casualties of a household budget during a recession, and that’s a problem for all those “Dry Clean Only” garments in our closets.

For Dryel, penny pinching times present an opportunity to reach an important audience: Upper-middle and middle-class Americans (and Canadians) with a wrinkle in their dry-cleaning budgets. Dryel has a cost-saving solution for that growing pile of "Dry Clean Only" clothes in the hamper.

And someone on that company's executive committee realized that now is the time to spend money on ads that put Dryel in front of an emerging market. People may try Dryel now because they have to. If the product is good enough, though, people will buy Dryel later because they want to.

I looked at the company's Web site statistics, and there was a substantial spike in traffic in October 2008, when news of the recession was really starting to hit hard. I suspect that their website will continue to have higher-than-usual traffic as people start looking for ways to save money...and Dryel makes an effort to show them a different dry-cleaning solution.

So listen up, all you companies out there who are cutting your advertising and marketing budgets, take note. Now is not the time to stop communicating with your audiences. Now is the time to, in the words of character Jean Luc Picard, "Engage." (Thanks Jim Mitchem, advertising guru and expert on the high-impact use of the color orange, for sharing the video, below, with folks on your blog.)


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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I'm going with these guys, Fantasy Football or NOT!


They might even be able to keep up with my three-year-old. He's THAT fast.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Marvelous ad campaign by the Discovery Channel

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

50 People, One Question

Fifty People, One Question: London from Crush + Lovely on Vimeo.
My answer: at Sarah's house in Hayle.


Howard bless you, Mrs. Hughes


This is one of the funniest ladies I've seen in a very long time. Don't watch this if you have anything in your mouth. You might blow it out your nose when you laugh. Share with anyone who needs a lift.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The writer's brain unraveled: On writing and thinking

I've been reading a lot of writing by writers lately. Most recently, I enjoyed a post by a prolific blogger and Twitter-er, Chris Brogan, called "Cultivating a Writing Habit" and I chased that shot with an equally inspiring elixir -- a post by my friend Beth about Creative Writing Under Pressure

Maybe it's just me, or maybe it's all writers in general, but there's something about the process of writing that I find fascinating. Thinking about writing leads to thinking about thinking. And when others talk about writing -- about their own personal writing habits and rituals -- I learn a little something about how they work and how their brains work.

Chris Brogan's brain does not work like mine. He can apparently sit down at any moment, rip open an ink-filled vein, and let words spill all over the pages without feeling a lot of pain.

Beth's brain works a lot like mine. It's kind of like a cat. If I want to have a good experience writing, I have to convince my brain that it is writing because it wants to write. You can't force a brain like mine into doing any writing that it doesn't want to do and expect anything less than a painful outcome. And who wants to write when the fur is flying and the claws are out?

Beth's blog explores some of the ways that she prods, cajoles, tricks, and negotiates with her cat-writer brain. She does other things and waits for the ideas to come to her. Make no mistake, that girl can write on a deadline, all right -- I saw her do it plenty of times in college. But that kind of writing just isn't the same as the kind of writing that comes from a brain that tells you it wants to write.

I am the same way. I wait for the ideas to fall from the heavens and spend afternoons chasing after them with a butterfly net. I usually catch enough to start most any assignment. But when I'm forced to write and I have little inspiration, I turn to reading to jump-start my brain.

Chris Brogan and I are alike in that way. He loves to read. And he is absolutely right that great writers are even better readers. I especially love to read writing by writers for writers.

Good writing is a relief to read. Great writing is fun to read. But brilliant writing -- poetry and prose for true logophiles - that sings to a different part of my soul. I'm talking about writing like you'll find in Catch-22, a book so loaded with irony that it spills right over into the sentence structure.

One of my favorite writers is William H. Gass. His essays are not for the faint of heart. They are intellectual beefsteaks - chewy, delicious, time consuming and worth the effort.  I stumbled across his writing in Harper's, where I read his essay "In Defense of the Book: On the Enduring Pleasures of Paper, Type, Page, and Ink" and nearly wept with joy at the exercise (indeed, folks like Stephen Schenkenberg have rightfully credited Gass with turning reading into an aerobic activity).

After reading that essay, I marched right out and bought his book "Tests of Time," a collection of essays that, for me, are roller coaster-ride thrilling to read -- better, actually, because the ride lasts a lot longer, and there's no line to wait in if you want to read the ride again. When I'm in the middle of one of his essays, I can't help but marvel at his skill. I also can't help but think, "My God, how does this man's brain work?"

I've often wondered about his career as a writer. Did William H. Gass perform well under pressure? Did he relish the fast pace of a deadline-driven world, or did he prefer the more organic approach like my friend Beth and I do? Or, did it matter either way?

In my other life as a professionally trained, practicing journalist (in the early 90s) I performed well under pressure. I could negotiate deadlines with ease (I was late in every other area of my life, but I got my copy in on time, most of the time). I eventually discovered my limitations. I discovered the point at which the pressure and stress of a job could be too great - and it would affect the end-product of my writing.

I was a speechwriter for Laura Bush and I worked for the White House on 9-11. An already stressful job became enormously difficult in the aftermath. I was shell-shocked and probably suffered from PTSD for some time after that (remember D.C. had the anthrax scare and the snipers around that same time).

In the midst of all that chaos and terror, I had a difficult time crunching data, processing complex ideas, remembering details, and producing thoughtful, clear, original speeches. Working under such pressure had a profound impact on my writing ability and productivity. Writing a speech was like giving birth - agonizing, painful and ultimately exhausting.

I remember one particularly bad day I was researching a speech, and I was looking at a page of printed type when I realized that I had lost the ability to read. I knew that there were words on the page, but I couldn't tell you what they meant. I was literally dumbfounded. I got up and left my office. 

I rarely left my desk when I was working on a speech, but that wasn't by choice. There were too many demands that kept me in my chair, on the phone, or at the computer, and I could rarely get away and find a peaceful place to think and write. Usually a short break would give me just enough energy to finish a job. But that day I just shut down. I had to go home and rest for a few hours before I could read and write again.

It took several years to mentally unwind after I left the White House. Whenever I was presented with an important or complex writing job, I had to slog through it -- coaxing, cajoling, tricking, and finally flat-out forcing my brain to think, think, think. I wasn't pleased with any of my work. It was adequate but not inspired.

Writing - the one thing that I loved most in life; the thing that had been therapeutic and inspiring since childhood - drained me. My brain was empty and silent. I wasn't sure if I would recover that joy again, but I did, thank God. The internal dialogue came back, one word at a time. I found inspiration in reading. In writing poetry. In writing for myself instead of someone else. In not forcing it, but allowing it to rain down on me. The old cliche is true. Time does heal most wounds.

The brain is a fascinating thing that we are only now beginning to peel apart and understand. From what I've gathered over years of reading about early childhood cognitive development, psychology, and current research about the brain, in some patients with PTSD or depression, the amygdala (the "fight or flight" center of the brain) often usurps the
hippocampus -- the amygdala's next-door neighbor that controls learning and recall (memory). It essentially dampens the sort of creativity we need to develop unique ideas and write beautiful sentences.

Yet the amygdala is also responsible for what's called "fear" learning
(coping skills, reactions and/or responses to danger). So, on the one hand, stress and fear inhibit cognition but might promote a specific kind of creativity: e.g. problem-solving skills necessary to save a life or preserve a species. Does that mean writing on a deadline triggers fear-based cognition, and pleasure writing is an entirely different cognitive process?

For that answer I turned to someone I recently discovered on Twitter, Dr. Ellen F. Weber. Dr. Weber is CEO and President of MITA International Brain Based Center for Renewal in Secondary and Higher Education, and an author, lecturer and columnist. She said, essentially, that "Stress shuts down learning, lowers (immunity), blocks growth, limits creativity and adds the toxic chemical cortisol (to the brain equation). Relaxed writing generates serotonin, fosters curiosity, draws from multiple intelligences, and grows brain cells for solutions."

I'm fascinated about studies that explore how the stress, fear and rage responses impact creativity, learning and memory in people with depression, anxiety disorder, or PTSD (patients who are assumed to have hyper-sensitive fear or rage responses as a result of some past or recent trauma).

For example, a recent study in Michigan is exploring the effects of cannabinoids on the brain (as in cannabis - marijuana - THC). I learned that the part of the brain with the greatest number of cannabinoid receptors is the amygdala (fight or flight center).  I also learned that our bodies actually make a version of this substance - called, appropriately, endocannabinoids. Who knew that the human body was capable of producing its own brand of THC.

Funny, yes, but think of the implications and contradictions. On the one hand, people with depression or PTSD have trouble remembering things and/or processing complex data. In those patients, brain scans reveal overactive amygdalas that are often deteriorating -- possibly due to the toxins produced from stress (like cortisol). On the other hand, potheads have trouble remembering things or processing complex data too. But what happens if you give stressed, anxious or depressed patients cannabinoids? Early research seems to suggest that they might just relax and think things through.

Wait a second.

Most research seems to show that THC has a detrimental impact on memory function. But if those same substances have been shown to dampen the emotional responses that interfere with learning and memory, then is it hypothesized that cannibinoids have potential benefits in patients with PTSD/anxiety disorder -- and might somehow actually help promote learning and memory? Is this the scientific equivalent of writing on Beth's deadlines versus Charlie's vacuum-the-house-generated prose?

I'd like to see brain scans of writers writing under the following conditions: on deadline, with someone screaming at them, after cleaning house or driving a car or other idea-generating activities, after jogging and after being given THC.

Could we see the actual changes in cognition? What parts of the brain would light up or turn off? What could we learn from this sort of study? And how would that impact the blogosphere and newsrooms across America?  

Wouldn't you just love to peer inside the brains of your favorite writers and see not only what makes them tick, but also how they tick?

Any volunteers?

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Lucky 7, Lucky You: My Random Things

Well, I’ve been tagged in a “meme”-- which, according to my tagger, is something like a blog version of those “getting to know you” e-mails that find their way to my in-box on occasion.

Unlike that damn redhead, Stacy Lukas who tagged me, I had no idea what a "meme" was, nor what volunteering that information would mean for my free time over the next day or two. But, as she promised in her own blog, it’s relatively simple: I'm supposed to list seven random things about myself for your enjoyment and/or education. Without further ado:

1) I am a hopeless Anglophile, from the top of my red head to the bottom of my pale and freckled feet. My love for Great Britain is an incurable disease that takes stronger hold with my every exposure. I suspect that it has something to do with lineage: They are my people. I am of English, Irish, and Scottish descent (from England's Portsmouth, Ireland's Loch Conn, and unknown parts of Scotland) It's also been rumored that we are descendants of Lord William Canning, and we have a family crest that my cousins swear is older than QVC. I adore the British people. I love the food of England (including and especially the cheeses, clotted cream and "Extermely Chocolatey Mini Bites"). And oh, how I love Guinness. I also find something sacred and powerfully comforting about the British tradition of tea. It is my religion. I love that I blend in with everyone on the beaches of Cornwall: nearly all of us day-glo white and freckled with red blotches where we missed with the sunscreen. And I love the wildlife. Ravens, magpies, seagulls; even rabbits. Once, when I was walking along the Hayle Towans (grass-covered dunes) with my friend Sarah, we happened upon a coven or two of rabbits. I squealed with delight at the spectacle of dozens of long ears disappearing down rabbit holes. As I stood there taking it all in, Sarah shook her head in dismay. "We eat them, you know," she said, smiling wryly. I know better -- I've seen them immortalized in art. The only thing I don't like about England is leaving it. Look out, Bill Bryson. I could take you for the Anglophile title.

2) I am nicknamed after my great-uncle, Charlie Fern. He was a fascinating caricature of a man; a pioneering aviator (barnstormer) and journalist (a self-proclaimed "UPI man") in Hawaii, who worked his way up to owner and publisher of the Garden Isle. A problem with the fuel gauge on his twin-engine "Jenny" led to his becoming the first man to fly a plane round-trip in the Hawaiian islands. I've found few writings about him that didn't include adjectives like "talented", "daring", and "legendary". Uncle Charlie was responsible for developing my love of letters and of writing. My nom de plume and company name isn't just a tribute to this personal hero; it is a legacy that I continually strive to honor in my own life and profession. It is also a daily reminder that you cannot live a large and honorable life without taking risks and maintaining integrity. A bittersweet asterisk: The man who knows the most about Uncle Charlie's life is his son Charles Jr. (who goes by Mike), whom I have never met because my family lost track of him. They claim he is a recluse (and a genius). I know very little about Mike, except that he's about 85 and he lives somewhere in Orange County. And he is the guardian of the remainder of details about the life of one of the greatest men I've ever known.

3) I have an irrational fear of bridges, especially tall ones. I will bring a car to a screeching halt on the shoulder of a road that presents a sudden and unexpected bridge ahead. I am terrified of the Delaware Memorial Bridge (or DEL MEM BR, as the sign says), and I am physically unable to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and the bridge that leads into Newport, Rhode Island. So, if you're ever caught on a road trip and I'm behind the wheel, I suggest you check the map and make sure you know what's ahead.

4) I love olives -- especially fancy name-brand pitted black olives. I have loved olives since I was a child, and I have been known to eat an entire can in one sitting. In my family, it was a Thanksgiving tradition to set a bowl of black olives out on the dinner table. And traditionally, they never lasted till dinner if there were any kids around. It was one of life's early pleasures, popping an olive over the tip of each finger, wiggling them, and eating them. And many a Christmas stocking was stuffed with a can of olives for me. Mine, all mine.

5) I sang a duet with Fred Rogers (as in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood) on April 3, 2002. I was staffing an event in the East Wing -- The White House Conference on Early Childhood Education. Mr. Rogers was one of the guest speakers. I should insert here that I have met, and worked for, a lot of very famous people. By that point in my tenure at the White House, I was fairly numb to the celebrity effect. So it is somewhat embarrassing to say that of all the big-name people I've encountered in my life, it was Fred Rogers who reduced me to a giddy kid who could hardly find her voice upon meeting him. He's just exactly as the world saw him on television: Warm, kind, attentive, sincere.

I shook his hand after the event and told him (babbled, actually) that when I was a kid, I didn't much care for his show, but I had grown to appreciate him (and his music) as an adult. I often called my grown-up friends and sang "It's Such a Good Feeling" to them -- in fact, a friend and I had worked out a little stage routine to the song. His face lit up and he said, "Why don't we sing it together?" I was utterly stunned. This was an opportunity I simply could not refuse, but I risked being fired for upsetting the program to accommodate him. Yet he insisted, and hnd his "handler" (manager) agreed.

Once all the guests from the conference were seated in the dining room for lunch, Fred Rogers excused himself from the room. He walked out to the main corridor on the first floor of the White House, where the Marine Corps band was playing. Mr. Rogers and I were alone there except for the musicians and one or two staffers. He walked up to the White House Steinway piano - the one with golden eagles for legs - and asked the Marine who had just finished playing a song on it if he (Fred Rogers) might sit down and play a song. The Marine promptly and cheerfully obliged. Mr. Rogers signaled me over. He started to play "It's Such a Good Feeling," and I couldn't believe what a magnificent pianist he was. He rolled across the keyboard with exquisite grace and started to sing. He looked at me expectantly. When I could find my voice, I squeaked along with him. By the end of the song, I had tears running down my face. Yep. It was such a good feeling. A month or two later, I received a package in the mail. It contained an autographed picture (he'd also written a bar of notes from the song on it) and his entire collection of CDs (which I play for my 3-year-old son on a regular basis). Funny how one of the pinnacles of my career had nothing to do with speechwriting.

6) I nearly lit a man on fire on April 23, 2001. It happened when I was a White House speechwriter. One morning my boss, the head speechwriter for the President, brought around a man in a nice suit. I was deeply focused on an article I was reading. They appeared at my office door and I wheeled around in time to hear my boss introduce him. I know—at least I think I know – I heard “Josh Bolten,” but as I stood up and stuck out my hand, I said "Hi John."

I was swiftly corrected. My boss explained to Josh that I was the First Lady’s speechwriter. Josh’s expression conveyed a mental filing of information that made me uneasy. As I held his steel grip in my handshake, I realized that his sleeve was dangling perilously above the open flame of a candle I had lit on my desk. Bolton, who must've felt the heat, looked down and asked me what the "altar" was for. My boss, who had been standing silently in the doorway, shifted uncomfortably.

I stammered that the painters had just finished our offices and the candle was ridding the room of the paint smell. They were halfway down the hall as my voice trailed off…I picked up our office staff directory. I thumbed over to the section marked "Chief of Staff". There it was: Third person from the top. Josh Bolten. Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff of Policy. I'd just met the fourth most powerful man in the White House, got his name wrong, and nearly lit his suit on fire.

7) I know The Number One place to watch Marine One take off from the White House Grounds without getting shot by the secret service. It’s from the Old Executive Office Building; specifically, on a narrow ledge just outside a window in a top-floor hallway near the library. I and two colleagues found this spot when we worked in that building. I'm fairly certain you won't be shot, because when we were watching a departure one morning from that very spot, I noticed two pairs of binoculars pointed at me -- by two secret service guys on the roof of the White House. We waved. They waved back. I lived to tell the story.

There you have it, folks. Seven things that shaped the quirky person I am. And seven victims are all from Twitter:

1. Beth Zesinis (@avenuez)
2. Cathy Scott (@cathyscott)
3. Dr. Ellen Weber (@ellenfweber)
4. Joel Bass (@joelbass)
5. Diane L. Harris (@DianeLHarris)
6. Nichole Brown (@Napril1023)
7. John C. Kim (@JKimLosangeles)

I don't know some of these poor unsuspecting characters, but they seem like fascinating people based on our Twitter conversations. Anyway, that's the point, isn't it -- to get to know them better by their blogs?

Here are the rules:

* Link your original tagger(s), and list these rules on your blog.
* Share seven facts about yourself in the post - some random, some weird.
* Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs.
* Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs and/or Twitter.