How to Successfully Present at Chicago Ideas Week

The co-founder of a local company specializes in helping entreprenuers and employees articulate their ideas

Chicago Ideas Week kicks off Monday with some of the world's most outstanding speakers presenting their biggest, most inspirational and innovative ideas.

It's a big job -- not only thinking up the ideas but also articulating them in a way others understand and even take action.

What's the trick?

"It's not just presentations skills, it's communication skills," says Brian Burkhart, co-founder of Square Planet, which specializes in simplifying the public presentation of ideas. "Presentations are really about changing someone's beliefs or behaviors."

Not all of the speakers at CIW were born with a golden tongue, while many have had lots of practice and others work with a coach or took classes like the ones Burkhart and his business partner Doug Carter provide.

Burkhart was tapped to be an emcee of "Social Entrepreneurship: My Venture Changes the World. Can Yours?" talk at noon Monday at the Goodman Theatre, the kickoff of CIW. NBC Chicago caught up with him for some information about his profession and pointers for how entrepreneurs can improve their presentation skills.

Q: Can you explain a little bit about what Square Planet does?
At SquarePlanet, we believe that powerful communications is at the heart of every great organization and the individuals within that organization. Unfortunately, we also believe most people get it wrong. So, our purpose is to help those individuals and organizations create and deliver messages that people remember and respond to. We do this through all manner of presentations; from the spoken word, live events, print, web and beyond.

Q: How did you and Doug come up with the idea to create this kind of business?
After years of producing media for meetings, I realized the only thing left to chance are we the presenters themselves. Every other detail, from beds and buns to entertainment and AV, always get taken care of. I kept watching the most important part, the message, fall apart as presenters took the stage woefully unprepared. Worst yet, at the completion of their presentation, people always gave positive feedback; nobody ever delivered the ugly truth.

It quite literally just came to me one night: We have the wildly unique experience to help individuals and organizations communicate powerfully, let's make this a business. So we did!

We built the company on the foundation that we'd deliver the ugly truth, but more importantly, we'd deliver a better option. We have a unique ability to see the problems and correct them instantly. Point is, we're never delivering bad news, we're delivering solutions. Ironically people really respond to our methodology; they know we're helping them in ways that manifest in all parts of their life. 

Q: Why are presentation skills so critical when pitching an idea or talking in a meeting?
Want a raise?  You're trying to change your bosses beliefs and behaviors. Want a first date to go well? You're trying to change someone's beliefs or behaviors. Want your new technology company to get angel funding? You're trying to change someone's beliefs and behaviors. 

Basically, these skills are mission critical, they are at the very epicenter of all business. Yet the vast majority of us don't possess the knowledge or skills to be effective. That's where we come in.

Q: How did you get involved with Ideas Week?
Well, we knocked on the door. Last year was the first Ideas Week in Chicago, ever. I happened to stumble on a link to their website, found the name of one person within the organization and simply pushed the issue. I made the case that at the heart of it, Ideas Week was about amazing presentations and that we could help. Good for us, they agreed. We ended up helping a bunch of people; CEO's and celebrities. We did webinars, created stunning visuals, crafted content and finally coached some people to stand and deliver. 

Q: Can I get a small preview of your speech on Monday?
One thing I've noticed is that all of the presenters during this talk took on enormous challenges. They saw remarkable problems and when most would have looked the other way, they jumped right in. My speech is on Oct. 8, the 141st anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. After that fire, Chicagoans did something similar. They could have simply walked away from the mountains of carnage and destruction, but instead they chose to stay and rebuild the city to even greater glory. That effort bore a mantra of the time and was later adopted as the city motto, it's "I Will." How incredibly profound ... I Will. It captures the spirit of the social entrepreneur and with the coincidence of the anniversary, I just have to talk about it!

Q: What two things do you think are most important for people to do before giving a presentation?
The biggest thing by far is to really, deeply, focus on your content and message. It's not about slides. It's not about great delivery skills. It's about a great message. Too often people spend most of their time building slides; it says "insert text here" so they do. This is not a command! As the saying goes, content is king. People wing it believing they are more knowledgeable and prepared than they really are. Big mistake.

Second thing would be to reverse common notion about who the presentation most affects. When people present poorly, they have made it all about themselves. They have been selfish. Boring presentation? Not enough time spent developing compelling content. Selfish. Stutter, stammer and bobble through? Not enough time spent practicing delivery.  Selfish. Horrific bullet point riddled slides nobody can see? Selfish. Go too long? Selfish.

The list goes on and on, all problems can ultimately get traced back to the idea of selfishness. Again, big mistake.

Q: Who are you helping coach for Ideas Week this year?
We've done a couple of webinars again with probably 50-plus total participants, so a big chunk of the presenters. Probably the most famous person is Olympian Natalie Coughlin.

Q: Have you ever bombed a presentation?
Actually I really haven't. I've known for a long time the keys to effectiveness so I always prepare accordingly. I have some moments that didn't go as well as I intended and others that far exceeded my expectations, but I've never fully bombed.

Q: You have a lot of success stories of the people you help, but is there one in particular that stand out? Why?
Ron Lewis, a 17-year-old African American high school student at St. Joseph High School in Westchester. He's all personality and a great kid. Just a few months ago, we helped Ron take seventh place in the "Future Business Leaders of America" program held in San Antonio, TX.  

We did it because we believe in powerful communications.

We've helped all kinds of people, from big-time CEO's to small business owners, but Ron was the most fun. I know that we profoundly changed his life, not just for the competition, but going forward. We truly helped his life trajectory and that's incredibly fulfilling.

For more information on Burkhart and Square Planet, check out his website.

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