Best PracticesCommunication vs pontification: How to tell the difference

by Ashley Kolaya • August 28, 2020

We tend to craft our communication around our own opinions about what’s important, when in fact we should prioritize conveying meaning to our audience.

We’ve all witnessed it: in our social media feeds, during work meetings, in conversations at cocktail parties, and perhaps most unfortunately on keynote stages: we’ve all seen someone who thinks they’re communicating when what they’re actually doing is pontificating.

You can tell it’s happening by how it makes you feel when you’re on the receiving end. Communication, on the one hand, feels satisfying-- like you as an audience member are an active and present part of a 2-way dialogue. Pontification, on the other hand, is immensely unsatisfying-- boring, off-putting or even obnoxious -- like your presence in the conversation is an afterthought, if it’s even a thought at all.

The key difference

Communication conveys meaning. It’s a dynamic process that involves both the audience and the messenger. Effective communication depends as much on the receiver’s understanding as it does on the messenger’s message. Communication centers the audience.

Pontification expresses opinions or judgments. It’s less of a process and more of a static delivery mechanism for information the messenger has deemed valuable. It is often dogmatic (even when it’s friendly) and it favors what matters to the speaker over what matters to the audience. Pontification centers the speaker.

The difference may seem subtle, but it has grave consequences, both in public speaking and in our interpersonal relationships, both in person and online.

What pontification looks like

Pontification shows up everywhere. Here are some examples we’ve all seen and, at times, perpetrated ourselves [sheepishly raises hand]:

  • Twitter rants-- Twitter is basically ground zero for pontification: lots of people making lots of emphatic points, with little attention paid to those on the receiving end, or whether that 2-tweet series of emojis was even actually a point
  • “Show and Tell” or overly esoteric work presentations-- These can have a very “look what I did” feel to them, instead of focusing on what really matters: conveying how your presentation topic matters to your colleagues.
  • Resilience talks-- I realize this may be controversial, but I’d argue that a talk centered around a speaker’s harrowing story of something they valiantly overcame is often pontification, because of exactly that: it puts the speaker, rather than the audience, at the center.

How to avoid it

So what do we do? When faced with the possibility of coming off as “boring, off-putting or obnoxious,” many of us decide we’re bad at giving presentations, terrified of public speaking or don’t have anything of value to add to a conversation. And sure, you could decide not to share anything at all. Orrrr, you could try some small fixes that will, over time, help you evolve as a communicator:

  1. Practice your ABCs- This stands for “audience before content”. We love this acronym, first coined by James Wagstaffe, at TED because it helps our speakers understand that communication isn't about you, the speaker; it’s about your audience. Each time you’re in front of an audience, whether it’s 10,000 strangers, one close friend or anything in between, you have the opportunity to give that audience a gift. And it’s worth spending a bit of time to figure out how to make that gift special.
  2. Articulate what gift you’re giving your audience- In any given setting, you’ve got the opportunity to give your audience a gift. And articulating exactly what that gift is will help you figure out what belongs and what doesn’t. (I recommend trying to articulate your core idea in 1-2 declarative sentences. No, “It’s about how…’s.” -- that’s the surest fire way to end up trying to squeeze too much in.)
  3. Get specific- As you’re thinking about your core idea, be as specific as possible. Specificity helps your audience understand why they should care about your message. It’s the new or unique perspective you have access to that we don’t (yet).

It's the difference between going into a work presentation with the goal of “giving my team a status update on my latest project,” versus “showing my team how the last two developments in this project have resulted in X, and it will impact our work as a team in Y ways.”

Calibrating your messages to be audience-centered, rather than speaker-centered is the simplest thing you can do to ensure that you’re communicating effectively. For more insights on understanding your audience, read the work of Briar Goldberg, TED's Speaker Coach Director (who first taught me how to be on the lookout for pontification and how to practice my ABC’s), and to learn more about how to develop and communicate your ideas, visit TED Masterclass.

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Ashley Kolaya

Ashley is TED-Ed's Director of Curation and Coaching. She spends her time surfacing, developing and amplifying voices and stories the world needs to hear. She lives for helping people arrive at the a-ha moment of discovery that they *do* have an idea worth spreading, even if it's spent a lot of time buried under a mess of non-ideas.

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