During the decade I’ve been blogging, I’ve written several articles about what speakers should wear. It’s time for an update, because there’s some new research on the science of apparel.
New research shows that formal business attire—suits for men and the equivalent for women—increases your ability to think big, abstract and creative ideas.
All of those are good for speakers, so suit up.
Be consistent, of course, with several other important aspects of dress: Dress better than the audience (but not too much better), and ensure your clothes are relevant to your talk.
For example, if you’re at an entrepreneurs’ conference in Silicon Valley and everyone is dressed in T-shirts and jeans, you might wear a sports coat. A suit would probably be overkill. Bankers, on the other hand, will expect you to wear a suit and a tie.
We negotiate better in suits than in casual clothing. If you’re undertaking significant audience interaction, keep in mind that dressing up empowers you in several ways.
If you’re speaking about creativity, however, a suit could indicate that you’re not a creative type. In that case, balance formal attire with the iconic statement you’re trying to make. Think of Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck and jeans. He was signaling that he was different from the typical corporate executive, and it worked well for him.
Another study (which researchers fondly call the “red sneaker effect”) found that if you subtly vary your clothing from the norm—wear a red bowtie with your suit, or red sneakers with your academic attire—then people will perceive you as more powerful and competent.
This probably happens because the audience assumes that if you’re able to break the rules a little, you have confidence and authority. If you break the rules too much, however, they’ll see you as either clueless, crazy or incompetent.
Choosing what to wear is complicated, because attire is a primary way we signal our attitudes, social status, relationships with those around us and a host of other things. Clothing is a sign of status, profession and attitude.
Keep these three rules in mind, and you won’t go wrong:
1. Always dress a little better than the audience.
2. Dress in a way that signals you’re at the top of your profession or industry.
3. Dress in a way that subtly shows you can break the rules with impunity.
The trick is not to take any of these rules too far. Wear clothing that makes you feel comfortable, allows you to move easily and makes you feel like a million bucks.
My advice to clients is to always go to top-end clothiers and splurge on an outfit that makes you look fabulous. Bask in the sartorial splendor when all eyes are on you.
This post first ran on Ragan in 2016. A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.