Article Category: Ask Six Minutes, Speaker Habits

How to Dress for Public Speaking


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Suit or sweater?

Pants or a dress?

Does how you dress impact your effectiveness as a speaker? If so, how?

Eric Hudon (@erichudonca) asks this on Twitter:

@6minutes How should a speaker dress and in what circumstance? Casual, Formal, Other? What is to be avoided?

In this article, we examine clothing do’s and don’ts for public speakers.

Dress Like Your Audience is Dressed

Different speaking situations call for different clothing styles, but you are usually pretty safe if you are clean, tidy, and dressed as your audience is dressed. Why?

  1. Ethos (your credibility) is one of three pillars of persuasion.
  2. To develop ethos, you emphasize your similarity to your audience.
  3. One practical way to achieve this is by dressing similarly to them.

So, how do you know how your audience will dress? Do your audience analysis! If the venue is a recurring conference or setting, go with what people wore last time. If you are presenting at a venue which is new to you, ask the event organizer what the usual dress code is. If there is a strong dress code, adhere to it!

This doesn’t mean you have to wear the identical suit or dress that everyone in your audience wears. There’s obviously quite a bit of latitude here. The point is that you don’t want to be significantly over-dressed or significantly under-dressed.

But I’ve heard that I should dress better than my audience?

The key is that you look professional and respectful. Once you start talking, they shouldn’t be noticing what you are wearing anyway.

Conventional wisdom says that you should dress one notch higher than your audience is dressed. Why a notch higher?

  • To stand out?
  • To earn respect?
  • To hint at your success and affluence?

I don’t think any of those are particularly strong reasons for dressing above the level of your audience. Instead, I think the motivation for the “dress one notch higher” advice is that it buys you a little insurance in case your audience analysis was flawed.

  • If you dress one notch higher than your predicted audience dress code, and the audience is dressed fancier than you predicted, then you are still safe.
  • Of course, if your estimate is wrong the other way, you can show up significantly over-dressed.

I wouldn’t worry too much either way. The key is that you look professional and respectful. Once you start talking, they shouldn’t be noticing what you are wearing anyway.

Public Speaking Clothing Taboos

If a good rule of thumb is to dress at (or just above) the same level as your audience, what would the opposite of that be?

The worst thing you can do is dress in such a manner that makes you stand out… for all the wrong reasons.

In Speak Up! A Woman’s Guide to Presenting Like a Pro, Cyndi Maxey cautions:

Any area you emphasize will be noticed — most often in a distracting way. […] Do you like the fit of the lower-cut neckline of your new wraparound blouse? You can bet your cleavage will be noticed. Think about what you’re emphasizing as you dress. Consider what you can emphasize that stresses your professionalism and your expertise, not your sexuality.

Another general taboo is shirts with sayings on them, especially if the saying is potentially offensive to any member of your audience. Again, you want the attention to be on the words you speak, not the words on your shirt.

  • Exception: If the saying on the shirt is tied to your presentation, this may be appropriate. For example, if you are speaking to raise money for cancer research, then a “I’m a survivor” t-shirt may not only be appropriate, but may cement your authenticity.

As suggested earlier, be sure you show up clean and tidy. Failure to do so may be interpreted as a lack of respect for your audience.

Plan for Clothing Malfunctions and Mishaps

Nobody wants a clothing malfunction to occur to them. A few ways to guard against these negative events include:

  • Consider taking a second outfit, particularly if you are travelling or if the presentation is really important. You’ll want that insurance in case something happens (e.g. an untimely spill) before your presentation.
  • Be careful with what you eat or drink just before your presentation. Grape juice and spaghetti sauce are probably not wise choices.
  • Don’t tempt fate with clothes that are too tight. Speaking is (or should be) a physical activity, and you don’t want to pop a button or rip a seam when you’re moving around. (I’ve seen both happen.)
  • Similarly, you may wish to avoid overly loose clothes or accessories which can get caught in odd places, like on a lectern or a flip chart stand.

But what if, despite your best efforts, a clothing malfunction happens anyway?

Roll with it. Fix it discreetly, if you can (e.g. an undone button, or an unzipped zipper). Sometimes, you’ll be the last person in the room to notice. Just laugh it off and get back to providing value for your audience.

When is it Okay to Go Against the Grain?

In certain (rare) situations, it may be appropriate for you to throw out all of the conventional wisdom and use your clothing to capture attention.

In Boring To Bravo (the Six Minutes book review), Kristin Arnold suggests that you might try dressing in (partial) costume which is in some way tied to your theme. The idea is that your clothing (or perhaps an accessory) is purposefully used as a prop.

If you give this a try, I’d suggest doing it in the early part of your presentation. By the time you are bringing the powerful messages, you’ll be dressed “normal” again so the audience can take you seriously.

Other Speaker Clothing Considerations

The clothing you wear can have an impact beyond the way you look standing in front of the room.

  • Avoid noisy clothing or accessories. It’s not good if your shirt, pants, or jewellery distract your audience every time you move.
  • Comfort is important too. Your energy level and delivery can be negatively impacted if you are wearing really uncomfortable clothing or shoes. This is especially important if you are speaking for a long keynote, or an all-day course. Pyjamas are not appropriate, but there is middle ground.
  • Will you be wearing a microphone? If so, consider where it will be pinned.
  • What gestures, actions, or props do you have planned? Will they work with what you are wearing?
  • Before you get called up to speak, remove any potentially distracting items (e.g. ID badges, cell phones, sunglasses, hats)

In summary, do clothes make the speaker?

In Lend Me Your Ears, Max Atkinson summarizes his section on public speaking attire with words that mirror my own thoughts.

The point here is not that clothes don’t matter at all, but that we should not be drawn into thinking that there is some scientifically based recipe that is guaranteed to enable us to convey a favourable impression to every member of the every audience, regardless of the particular circumstances of the occasion.

Perhaps the best advice I can give on what to wear is simply this: Wear a smile, because that will probably carry more weight than any piece of clothing.

Your Turn: What’s Your Opinion?

Do you have a clothing preference when speaking? Can you share a story about a speaker who was or was not dressed appropriately?

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