Book-Talk with Brian Burkhart (SquarePlanet Presentations & Strategy Founder)
Brian believes in making waves.
He’s the founder and Chief Word Guy at SquarePlanet Presentations & Strategy, a local company based right here in Phoenix, that was recently named to Inc. 5000’s Fastest Growing Companies list. He’s on staff at Northwestern University’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and is the author of the Amazon Best Selling book, “Stand for Something: the Power of Building a Brand People Authentically Love.”
The work Brian does isn’t for everybody; after all, he believes in making waves. Those brave enough to work with him including Google, Red Bull, McDonalds, Jim Beam, Zico Coconut Water, Stryker, United Airlines and Citibank. He’s prepped ten firms that have appeared on TV’s Shark Tank and worked with dozens of TED presenters, CEO’s, authors, renowned personalities and entrepreneurs around the globe.
Creating messages that move people within the framework of a live event is Brian’s specialty. He’s well-versed in the myriad of nuances and is able to bring together the various moving parts, resulting in countless stories of incredible success and impact. Working with the crew, those on stage and the client at large – he pushes everybody to their best, resulting in an event that audiences remember.
In addition to his extensive experience, Brian is an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s prestigious Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, as well as an instructor at the Junto Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Chicago and Los Angeles. You can regularly catch him as the host of the SquareStories podcast, a bi-monthly exposé of the most fascinating people in business today.
A former Disney cast member as well as the host of The Hot Hamburger, a corporate game show produced by McDonald’s famous training entity ‘Hamburger University.’ Brian has traveled to 48 countries and counting, studied the human condition and believes deeply in the power of love over hate.
Brian and his amazing wife are both ceramic artists who can often be found covered in clay at their studio in downtown Phoenix or hiking one of the many local trails. A die-hard fan of the beloved Chicago Bears, Brian is a collector of classic Japanese woodblock prints and a self-described obnoxious foodie.
“At SquarePlanet Presentations, we believe communicating effectively is essential to all people within all industries. We also believe almost everybody gets it wrong. Well, we’re here to help.
Presentations include all manner of communication; from the live spoken word to an email or even a business card. When you’re trying to change someone’s belief or behavior, you’re presenting.
From a first date to asking your boss for a raise, more often than not, when you communicate, you’re making a presentation.
So why is so little time spent on developing this skill? Why are so many people so horribly bad?
We exist to help individuals and organizations deliver the best presentations of their life. This includes helping our clients create amazing content, design ridiculous slides/visuals and coaching them to rock the audience!
Our goal is to continue serving Fortune 1000 clients both domestically and abroad. We have a wealth of international experience and a tremendous resource base to make any project, large or small, domestic or international not only engaging, but easy and fun.”
What books had the biggest impact on you? Perhaps changed the way you see things or dramatically changed your career path.
I can’t give enough credit to Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” and his TED Talk based on the same concept. Simon’s philosophy, his innovative ideas, make perfect sense. Sure, a lot of the parts had always been there for me, but it had never been so clearly synthesized.
Next, Jim Collins’ “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t,” which is about acquiring the right talent. I had the pleasure of meeting Jim and working with him. Just watching him and the way he talked about businesses—from tiny firms you’ve never heard of to global giants everyone knows—meant a great deal to me. Early in my career, there were times when I let some less-than-great team member stick around. After working with Jim, it was a different story.
Another is Seth Godin, who wrote “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable.” The entire Godin experience, his books, videos, podcasts, blogs, is all about making waves. He’s made an extraordinary career for himself telling people to stop being like everyone else. His concepts are a form of validation for me. Here’s a guy who’s clearly doing well, has an amazing client roster and experience, and he’s saying the same things I’d been thinking for years. It’s like Michael Phelps telling you you’re a good swimmer.
But the book which really hit home was “Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences,” by Nancy Duarte. It’s interesting, I didn’t agree with her methodology or like much of what I read. It was too complex and not realistic for people to use in everyday life. That said, it did help confirm to me that I was onto something. It was a different kind of validation than Godin—that the power of a great presentation isn’t just one man’s opinion. There’s real science behind it.
Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell us about it?
I’ve always enjoyed presentations, it was an area I had some skills. When I decided to make SquarePlanet, a real-deal business which revolves around presentations, the art and science behind them became crucial. One of the first things I did was jump into some TED Talks to try to figure out what made a talk great, versus what made one terrible. At the time, Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action” TED Talk was in the top five. It was eye opening. Then I picked up his book based on the talk, “Start With Why,” and I was just like—holy crap.
As I was reading Simon’s book it clicked, this was what every bad presentation was missing. They didn’t have a core belief—the thing people stood for—presented in any way. They had it all backward. It was a pivotal moment, a brick to the face, that made me stop and say, “This is it!” I knew the model before there was a model—it was already built into my brain. Simon had laid it out in front of me, and it made complete sense. In some ways, it was like Rosetta Stone—unlocking so many ideas. Afterwards, it was easy for me to teach the model.
What five books would you recommend to young people who are just starting their career? Why?
1. “The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business” by Josh Kaufman. It’s jam-packed with little digestible bites of wisdom—from finance to marketing to organizational development. It’s the guru bible of business.
2. “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller. This book is a masterpiece and absolutely hilarious. In subtle ways, you realize the main character is questioning not just the notion of authority, but the way authority thinks and how we must react to it. To me, a guy with the core belief “make waves,” it has a great message, which is, “It’s okay to question the status quo.” For people just starting their careers, it’s easy to think our superiors know everything—they’re not quick to admit their insecurities, flaws, and blind spots, but they have them. And having a healthy dose of skepticism isn’t such a terrible thing. Plus, it’s just a fun read.
3. “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” by Walter Isaacson. This book is essentially a biography of all the people who’ve led to the technology of today—it’s fascinating. The most important point of the book is everything is one long, connected chain. There isn’t just one person or one industry that makes anything happen—it all goes way back. For example, the communication theory I have espoused and taught throughout my career is from Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. Yeah, I’ve got my own spin on it—instead of ethos, pathos and logos, we say “know, feel, and do.” But it’s still based on their philosophies. Reading this book, I realized it’s not just someone like Steve Jobs who’s responsible for the era we live in. Rather, it’s Steve Jobs plus a whole lot of people from the last 200-plus years.
4. “Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing” by Harry Beckwith. I love this book. Everyone is a salesperson in some regard. You may not have a product to sell, but you certainly have yourself, your ideas, and your value to sell. Convincing people you, your principles, and your thoughts matter is a never-ending project. In Beckwith’s book—which is about selling services versus widgets—this theory definitely holds up. He also offers up a few profound thoughts on how people are wired.
5. “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” by Dr. Frank Luntz. He’s the one who said the two most powerful words are “imagine” and “believe.” That’s huge, and I absolutely agree.
Tell us more about your reading habits. How do you make time for reading? How often do you read? What format do you prefer? Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?
I wish I had more time to read. I love books—I’m talking real, physical books, not a Kindle. I often read before I go to bed, and I typically start my day reading. Most of the books I read are non-fiction business books, and I take tons of notes. I dogear the pages and scribble in them. Sometimes I’ll even fill up index cards with more notes.
Once every three years or so I’ll read a book just because. The last novel I read was Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One: A Novel,” because my buddy Mike Maddock said, “You gotta read this book!” And I tore it up. I read the whole book in less than two days. It’s something I wish everyone, including myself, did more of.
Many successful people offer the advice “follow your passion.” What would you recommend to someone who’s very young and not yet aware of their passion? Where should they begin their professional journey?
Leverage the power of reverse engineering. I have a nephew who’s obsessed with Barstool Sports. He always says he wants to work there and that it would be the greatest job of all time. So, I asked him, “What are you willing to do about it?” His answer, “I don’t know.”
This is where reverse engineering comes in—codify your actions. My nephew listens to Barstool Sports every day for two hours. That should tell him it’s something he deeply cares about and believes in, so he should do something about it.
But he didn’t have the courage to send a résumé. I said, “Dude. Go for it! Do something, stand out—be part of the equation. Those who stand apart aren’t doing anything safe, vanilla, or benign. They’re doing something loud and bombastic. Match that.”
If you don’t know what you believe, or what you stand for, codify your actions and look for a pattern. Then you’ll figure out what you believe in and what you stand for.
What fundamental skills, those that will always matter, do you believe should be learned in schools?
Lately, I find myself flummoxed by people of all ages not being able to communicate effectively. Both the written word and certainly the spoken word seem like they’ve become less important. In the world of emojis and 140 characters, the way people communicate has fundamentally changed.
We’re human beings. Whether it’s to our life partners, friends, family, coworkers, the guy behind the counter at 7-11, we must communicate. The ability to write, speak, and read better is vital. Somehow, some way, our words are losing power. I firmly believe there should be more emphasis on these skills in school.
What’s a habit that made the biggest difference in your day to day life?
Gratitude. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful when it comes to being a great communicator. When I coach people before they give a presentation, I instruct them to work on a gratitude journal for a month or so before their speech. If you come to any type of communication opportunity—in this case, a presentation—in a place of high gratitude, you’re far more likely to kill it.
The same holds true for day-to-day life as well. If there’s one thing that’s made me a better human, husband, and for sure a better boss, it’s gratitude. I think about what I’m grateful for each and every day. It’s become natural for me at this point to find moments of gratitude and be empathetic. It behooves anyone who makes it a habit.If there’s one thing that’s made me a better human, husband, and for sure a better boss, it’s gratitude. I think about what I’m grateful for each and every day. It’s become natural for me at this point to find moments of gratitude… Click To Tweet
You’re juggling multiple projects at the same time. How do you avoid information overwhelm or burnout? Have you set any self-care limits? (for example: are there things that other people spend way too much time doing that you generally stay away from?
My self-care is horrible. Even the basics like proper nutrition. My employees don’t often catch me doing a great job of feeding myself. I go a million miles an hour with no breaks. Then, out of the blue, I’ll tank. For a fairly bright guy, it’s a dumb way to go about the day.
I put my clients, employees, and everyone else first. I realize I need to take care of me, too. I just haven’t made that choice—yet. Sooner or later, I’ll figure it out.
You recently released your first book, “Stand for Something,” where you talk about building a brand people authentically love. What are some examples of incredible brands (or individuals) that you admire how they communicate and connect with their audience?
Nike is number one on my list of brands. They’re not willing to back down in any way, and I love them for it. Nike never stops shouting its beliefs from the rooftops. Whether it’s celebrating Serena Williams’ triumphant comeback at the 2018 US Open; making Colin Kaepernick the face of the 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign; nixing its Betsy Ross flag shoes in response to Kaepernick’s criticism; or the “Never Stop Winning” commercial highlighting Megan Rapinoe, the US Women’s National Soccer Team and the need for equal rights. Even if you disagree with Nike’s beliefs or decisions you got to acknowledge their this-is-what-we-stand-for-take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It helps that I agree with them. Maybe my blind zeal for their brand isn’t so blind.
REI is another brand I admire because of its decision to stop selling any products manufactured by Vista Outdoor, the parent company of guns-and-ammunition manufacturer Savage Arms. REI chose to do this because it doesn’t sell guns, and more importantly because it “believe[s] that it is the job of companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of violence that happened in Florida” in 2018. Vista Outdoor is also the parent company of Giro, Bell, Camelbak, Camp Chef, and Blackburn, all of which manufacture products which used to be highly popular at REI.
Consider what’s really going on here, and what’s at stake. REI is a retailer, their job is to sell products. When they choose not to put a product on the shelf, they don’t make a dime. Still, they said, “We don’t care. We’d rather have our bottom line suffer than have products inside our store that counter what we stand for.” It’s simply incredible.
Since then, however, Vista Outdoor secured a buyer for Savage Arms, thus removing itself from any affiliation with guns and/or ammunition. As such, REI announced July 8 that they’ll resume selling products manufactured by Giro, Bell, CamelBak, Blackburn and Camp Chef. But the fact that REI was willing to pull the plug on a mountain of popular and profitable products because the manufacturer doesn’t believe what they believe is truly remarkable.
We’re always hiding behind masks and filters, posting on social media and only exposing the tip of the iceberg. Even if we’re not afraid to be vulnerable and publicly expose ourselves, we might have forgotten our true identity and values, what we truly want, without any external pressures. Are there any ways that you’re trying not to fool yourself? (for example: do you journal or have certain people you trust to help you reveal any biases / blind spots when you need to make an important decision)?
Authenticity means a great deal to me. I’m also self-aware and realize I can perhaps be perceived unfavorably. People might think I’m cocky, opinionated, that I think I know all the answers. Okay, sure. I don’t hide or shy away from it. I speak loudly, and I’m not going to—in any way, shape or form—try to fake who I am, what I say, or how I behave. This is the authentic me.
I have surrounded myself with people who provide me with some balance and counsel. Of course, they’re led by my loud, vocal, smart, capable, psychotherapist wife, who reminds me of my blind spots on a regular basis. Additionally, there’s a long line of people in the acknowledgements section of my book who have mattered greatly. They’ve influenced me, said and done things which have truly helped inform the authentic person I am.
What’s something that you stand for, that you believe that nearly no one agrees with you on?
Every year I believe my beloved Chicago Bears will go 19-0 and win the Super Bowl, regardless of their quarterback or coaching staff. I will never stop believing in them. If people think I’m crazy, then too, damn, bad.
Beyond that, there is one thing I believe that a lot of people don’t agree with—the language used today by people in supreme places of power deeply matters. It’s not just the quick tweets or quick retorts. People are dismissing the power of language and communication, which have lasting impacts and implications. Sure, there are those who agree with me, but there are also millions who think I’m wrong. And I find it problematic.
Anything else you’d like to mention about your book? (for example, who needs to read it right away? 🙂 )
“Stand for Something: The Power of Building a Brand People Authentically Love,” is a book for the brave. I’m asking people to stop and take time to do something most individuals and organizations never do. And it’s not something you should walk into blindly.
I’ve taken the time to codify my beliefs to the core, and there are people in my orbit who see things differently than me. Those relationships are now fractured because I know—deeply—what I stand for, and I won’t work with those who don’t believe what I believe. For instance, Nextel asked me years ago to do some work for hundreds of thousands of dollars before Sprint acquired them. I said no. I didn’t believe in what they were doing. It may have set my bank account back, but if you want to be authentic, if you want to be the real you, then that’s what you have to do. That’s how this works.
My book isn’t for everyone, it’s for those willing to do the tough stuff. It’s remarkably rewarding to discover what you stand for, both personally and professionally. Once you know what you believe and what you stand for, you have no choice but to live authentically—it’s enlightening.
Once I figured out my situation, I had this weird, profound sense of, “I make waves, yes! I’m not just rude. I don’t have a personality disorder. I’m just wired to be a troublemaker. Got it!” I felt fantastic after. But it’s not easy. It takes courage to find the authentic you.
Links where you can follow Brian Burkhart or find out more about his projects:
All books mentioned by Brian in our interview:
- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek
- Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins
- Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, by Nancy Duarte
- Purple Cow, by Seth Godin
- The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business, by Josh Kaufman
- Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
- The Innovators – How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson
- Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, by Harry Beckwith
- Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by Dr. Frank Luntz
- Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
- Stand for Something: The Power of Building a Brand People Authentically Love, by Brian Burkhart