You — the information producer, the marketer bringing their product to the world, the salesperson pitching their wares, the executive trying to get their point across — have a lot of competition. The average human, according to Clay Johnson, “spends upwards of 11 hours out of every 24 in a state of constant consumption. Not eating, but gorging on information ceaselessly spewed from the screens and speakers we hold dear. Just as we have grown morbidly obese on sugar, fat, and flour—so, too, have we become gluttons for texts, instant messages, emails, RSS feeds, downloads, videos, status updates, and tweets.”
How do you stand out? 3 words.
Manipulation. Perception. Gestalt.
If you’re like me, you’re pretty familiar with the first two words, and have a vague idea of the third. Gestalt is one of those great German words, like zeitgeist (the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era) and weltanschauung (a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint) that profoundly and unconsciously influence us every day. It literally means shape or form. It’s the general quality or character of something. Think of it as how we understand the whole, not merely the sum of its parts.
Man has been seeing the whole and making connections for tens of thousands of years. It’s why we look at the heavens and see constellations that look like bears, bulls and goats. The ability to make connections and see patterns can be explained from an evolutionary perspective: For our ancestors, out on the plains hunting for food, it’s helpful to see a glimpse of movement in the bush, or a hoofprint, and know who’s supper.
Gestalt itself was introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology in 1890 by Christian von Ehrenfels in his work Über Gestaltqualitäten (On the Qualities of Form). This was built upon by psychologists from the Berlin School, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Köhler, who are considered the founders of Gestalt Theory.
Gestalt theory explains pattern seeking in human behaviour. Our tendency to see things in wholes, sometimes based on partial information, and make connections, where sometimes none exist. Simple changes allow you to shape (that’s a nicer word than manipulate) meaning.
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If you’re presenting, and you want to get your message across, pay attention to the effect of the visuals you’re presenting. They mean something, and you want to make that something work for you. That’s how you stand out from the competition.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.