What to wear. What to wear.
What to wear for public speaking is a much more important question than even I used to think. In my practice as a barrister, the options for clothes were pretty limited. Dark Suit, white shirt, dark tie, dark shoes, dark gown – and on top of it all a funny looking white wig made of horse hair!
First impressions matter in all things, and public speaking is no different.
Even before you say your first word, the audience will make a silent judgment about you, based largely on the way you look. Make the right impression, and you’ll get the audience on side from the start. Get it wrong, and however strong your speech, your audience will spend the whole time distracted by your clashing colours.
From the jeans and turtleneck of Steve Jobs to the colourful and elegant headscarves of Malala Yousafzai, what you wear can often have as much impact on the message people receive, as what you actually say.
So before you suffer your next wardrobe malfunction, here are some tips to consider on what to wear for public speaking and what you absolutely positively should not wear before your next speech. It’s a long list, but don’t be scared. The one rule to rule them all is… Be Yourself!
Worth downloading the Free What to Wear Checklist if you’re pressed for time
The Three Things to Think About
When it comes to choosing what to wear for public speaking, there are basically three things to think about:
- Comfort & Practicality
“Style is whatever you want to do, if you can do it with confidence” George Clinton
Substance, of course, is key when it comes to speechmaking. You can’t get away with weak content and cover it up by looking good. But beyond the content of your speech, the style you bring to the stage is still massively important for two big reasons: One – the impression your audience gets of you; Two – the confidence you get from looking good. The things to consider when thinking about the style of what you wear are:
- what is your personal brand? what impression of yourself do you want to give? Are the clothes you want to wear consistent with your personal brand?
- do you personally feel confident in the outfit?
- can you add a signature piece? Something that uniquely represents you? (I have a thing for yellow socks!)
- choose your primary colour carefully (here’s a good article for the meaning of certain colours)
- think about the backdrop to your speech (if it’s going to be a black backdrop you probably want to avoid black clothes; if you’ve got a white backdrop or screen, avoid white – especially if you’re going to be on video as light levels can play havoc with white clothes)
- hair – if you’re follicly challenged like me, this isn’t so much of a worry. Otherwise, consider things like – will your hair be combed, unkept, tied up, swept back, styled, kept natural etc.
- beards – clean shaven, stubbled, full bearded
- glasses – will you wear glasses or contacts
- culture – consider the culture of the country, region, industry, company, audience and be sure that what you wear comports with the culture
- skirt & blouse, dress or trouser suit
- smart or casual or smart casual or casually smart (is there a difference?) ; street or corporate;
- Ironed or rumpled?
- jewellery & accessories – what will you wear? what impression will they create?
- the occasion – what is appropriate for the occasion itself
- shoes – colour, style, formality, stilettos vs flats; brogues or trainers; polished
- skin showing – bare or covered arms; high/low neckline; open/closed buttons; cleavage
- skin tone – pale skin often benefits from darker shades, whilst darker skin will often carry off lighter colours well. I love pink shirts for instance!
- makeup – heavy, light, natural, accentuated
- loose or tight fitting clothes
- hat, cap, headscarf or open
- cologne/perfume – will you use any? What scent? How strong?
- breath – your mouth will get very dry, which will probably accentuate your breath. Consider what you eat beforehand. I personally get very conscious of my breath during a speech so I’ll always carry some mentos for emergencies
COMFORT & PRACTICALITY
No sense looking great if it affects your performance. At the same time you consider style, you’ve got to think about your comfort and the practicalities of giving a presentation. Think about:
- will it allow for movement (of your arms, neck, legs, bending, demonstrating) – I feel really constricted with a buttoned up shirt so any chance I get I dispense with my tie and undo the top button. So think about the practicality of suits, pencil skirts, tight tops
- sweat patches – some tops don’t handle sweat well at all. So, unless you know you’ll be as cool as a cucumber, plan for the inevitable sweat
- temperature of the venue – will you get too hot/cold
- spare clothes – do you need to bring a spare of something in case of problems?
- Shoes – especially if you are standing
- tears, stains, loose threads, missing buttons etc – check your outfit for defects because they’ll bother you otherwise
You will have 100 other things to worry about when the moment of your speech comes, so don’t make what you wear thing number 101.
Don’t try to be anyone else but yourself. It isn’t worth it.
You’ve thought about your style and your comfort. But remember, this is ultimately about the impression you make on your audience. So the final and most important thing to consider is what message you want to make with what you wear for public speaking.
We saw a classic example of this with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Zuck is normally a T-shirt and hoodie guy because it fits with his non-corporate accessible techie image. But he knew that that wouldn’t cut it for his appearance to answer questions before an angry (non-tech savvy) US Congress.
So we saw him in a sharp tailor-made sober suit and standard blue tie. Message – I’m serious about this. So, think about:
- matching or challenging your audience’s expectations – do you want to blend in or stand out? Are you one of them or apart from them?
- the tone you are giving about yourself – are you serious, funny, professional, relaxed, accessible, austere, affluent, humble
- jewellery and accessories – are they distracting, jangling or noisy?
- Colours – every colour has a meaning so choose carefully.
- will you use a meaningful prop e.g. scientist’s lab coat; yo-yo
Be in control of the message your appearance gives so that there is perfect consistency and symmetry between your look and your message.
And some Dos & Don’ts
- Do have a dress rehearsal. Practise your presentation in full dress. It will help you decide whether you’ve chosen wisely
- Don’t wear red if you’re a woman. According to research, red as a primary colour for an outfit apparently signals sexual receptiveness to men, and triggers defensiveness in women
- Do pick two outfits the day before and sleep on it. The right one will pick itself in the morning.
- Don’t wear stripes unless you are a fashion expert and absolutely confident in your choice. Moving stripes play havoc with eyes and cameras
- Do get a friend to give you a 360 check just before you speak. You won’t notice fluff on your back, an open fly, or spinach in your teeth
- Don’t over worry about your look. You have a 99% chance of being absolutely fine. And even if you end up looking a bit odd, your audience won’t hold it against you.
I guess all that remains is to show you my personal go to public speaking costume. Grey suit, pink shirt (though it looks kind of white on camera), no tie open button (cos I hate ties); a single button done up on my jacket so I’m neat but my arms are not restricted.
Although you cant see it, my shoes were black and polished and of course, I was wearing yellow socks!
What to Wear Checklist
Download the Free What to Wear Checklist