Unless you have studied the history of theatrical set design, you have probably never heard of a concept known as “gesamtkunstwerk.” Attributed to Wagner by Wikipedia, I first was exposed to it through the work of Josef Swoboda and his scenographic philosophy.
To understand it, you need some background. At one time, each theater had a few generic multi-purpose sets (e.g. the castle, the ballroom, outside, etc.). The individual performers supplied costumes. Lights had two settings, on and off. These would be thrown together to produce the show of the day. Not very cohesive, but it was fast, inexpensive, and in fact a big improvement over what was done before.
As production technology improved and standards rose the idea of gesamtkunstwerk emerged. This approach strives to integrate all aspects of stage design and production into one cohesive whole. The scenery, costumes, lights, sound, and props all meld together and bond with all aspects of the performance in order to deliver a single, emotive message from moment to moment. Everything works together, every second. It’s simple a simple and, in contrast to the older model, revolutionary idea.
How does this relate to communications?
When putting a presentation together it’s easy to focus on just the slides and (hopefully) the script and forget there are lots of other things happening while you are presenting. Managing all of those things, and getting each aligned on your message, is what will take your presentation from good to great.
Today we very often need to communicate complicated things to large and diverse audiences. One solution to this challenge is to talk more and add more details to slides – we’ve all seen that fail. To solve this problem you need to use all of the tools in your bag so you can say less but communicate more.
How you use the room, props, gesture, position, and your voice can support or detract from your message. Slides, video, and music can be a fantastic part of a presentation, but they can also be distractions and work against you. Even what you wear makes a difference.
A simple example.
Imagine watching a speaker, firmly planted behind a podium, delivering a factual speech about a big problem. Then, when they come to their most important point, they walk down and stand in the front row of the audience. The contrast is powerful. A simple change of location makes their appeal more personal and compelling. It makes everyone in the audience look up and pay attention, and does it without adding a word to the speech or a pixel to the slides.
When you can align everything in the room on the single message you are trying to get across at that moment you are tapping into the power of gesamtkunstwerk – bringing it all together.