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Stop Overwhelming Your Audience

Because I live in Las Vegas, colleagues and friends are eager to come visit—especially if it’s a particularly brutal winter. Each season, I get a few opportunities to see Vegas’ bewildering extravagance through the eyes of a first time visitor.

Early in their visit, we take a night to just walk down The Strip. Out here, so many things compete for your attention—the pulsing lights of a six story video marquee, costumed street performers, volcanic eruptions—but this is my city; I’ve learned to tune it all out.

For a local, the bizarre becomes commonplace. However, a first-time visitor often experiences these moments of cognitive and sensory overload. I can be deftly weaving my way through a crowd on Las Vegas Boulevard, only to find my companion at a full halt twenty steps behind me, temporarily overwhelmed by a five-hundred foot water cannon. These Vegas-newbies are trying to take it all in, but they can only handle so much.

And that’s exactly how many learners feel when they first encounter a thought leader’s ideas. Thought leaders, by definition, see the world differently than most. Thought leadership challenges everyday norms and customs. For someone exposed to these ideas for the first time, the perspective shift can be disorienting—like boarding a plane on a quiet afternoon in Normal, Illinois and landing in Las Vegas on a busy Friday night.

Thought leaders struggle with what’s called the Curse of Knowledge. They live with their ideas every day, exploring the nuances, intricacies, and caveats. They have mastered the art of looking at the world through their unique lens, and it can be difficult to remember what those ideas sound like to someone brand new to the content.

The Curse of Knowledge becomes a significant risk when presenting your content to people who want to learn your ideas—through a workshop, a scalable enterprise-ready platform, any type of blended or social learning. You want people to master your ideas and put them into practice. And that’s a much higher challenge than simply trying to get people to understand what you’re saying.

Here are three ways that the Curse of Knowledge frequently manifests itself
and what you can do to reduce its impact:

Trap #1: Focus on what interests you instead of the foundational building blocks new learners need.

As a thought leader, you think about your topic every day. It’s natural to want to share your latest insights—they’re at the front of your mind; however, your learners often need time to explore and digest those basic concepts. The basics may not excite you the most, but it’s what your learners need to hear first.

Trap #2: Move too quickly through too many ideas.

In the Curse of Knowledge, the “slow” walk through your content seems incredibly fast to new learners. When you present your content, insert several planned pauses where your audience can savor and capture this fresh-perspective. You want to ensure that they have a chance to settle in, to get on board with what you’re preaching, before moving ahead.

Trap #3: Forget that learners have something to teach you.

It’s easy to think that, as a teacher, you’re giving your audience the gift of knowledge. However, they’re also giving you a gift—their beginner’s perspective on your content. That’s a very valuable gift; you can’t simply “unlearn” your ideas and think about your content from a blank slate. But, you can gather that fresh perspective simply by listening to the observations and questions new learners have about your content.


As a thought leader, it’s easy to flip on your autopilot when you’re giving the same spiel for the 500th time. As you start to settle in behind the wheel is when these traps become the most hazardous. You get comfortable and start to overwhelm, confuse, and overlook your audience. Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge takes a conscious effort—you’re not just a presenter, educator, or speaker; you are a guide, leading an uncertain follower through an exciting and uncertain land.

A few years ago a friend and I were walking along the Strip. As we passed the Bellagio’s fountains, we spotted a street-preacher yelling into a bullhorn. I couldn’t tell you much of what he said. As far as I was concerned, he was as incomprehensible as Charlie Brown’s teacher “wahwah wahwah.” I tuned him out and kept walking.

Twenty feet later I realized my colleague was still at the fountains listening to that amplified preacher. He didn’t hang back for long, just long enough for a little smirk to grow on his face. When he finally caught up to me all he could do was shake his head and say, “He’s in love with his own voice.”

When we’re afflicted with the Curse of Knowledge, our capacity for empathy fades and we lose our ability to truly communicate ideas. In some ways, our passion for our ideas turns against us. We turn up our volume precisely when we should listen more carefully.

When we fall into these traps, we transform from worthy guides to unhelpful nuisances, from thought leaders to unwelcome annoyance.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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