What to wear for your next presentation

In preparing your wardrobe for that upcoming talk, consider your audience and the location—and for everyone’s sake, don’t constrict yourself.

What should you wear for your big presentation?

My advice is always the same, but a study from Abraham Rutchick, a professor of psychology at California State University, adds a new wrinkle.

Here are my three suggestions, followed by the study’s finding:

1. Dress a little better than the audience.

As the speaker, you are the authority. Your clothes should convey that authority. If the audience is in business casual and you show up in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, you’re going to look like you crashed the party, not like the speaker. Do your research, find out what everyone in the audience will be wearing, and go one better.

Our first impression of you, the speaker, is visual, and so it’s doubly important that the first impression fulfill the audience’s expectations of a good thing coming, and the idea that there’s an expert in the house. Don’t dress like the guys in “Dumb and Dumberer.” You’re there to delight and instruct the audience, not to pander or disappoint them.

Note that I say “a little better” than your audience. If you’re talking on the West Coast to a group of entrepreneurs in jeans and sneakers, showing up in a three-piece suit and tie is going to suggest that you’re hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch to that audience. So dress it down a little, or add wacky socks or something, to show that you’re not 150 years old.

2. Dress to fulfill your brand.

This bit of advice is trickier to follow, but just as important. Clothing represents you not only as an authority, but also as a unique brand. If you say, for example, that you’re an expert on creativity, but you show up dressed in the bland gray suit of a banker, you’re suggesting that your creativity is going to be on the bland side. Not good.

Spend time thinking about how your clothing can express your brand in some unique way—without breaking rule No. 1. If you’re an expert surfer, and you’re talking to New York bankers about the application of surfing insights to international finance, then you’ve got to find some way to express the surfing vibe within the context of a suit and maybe even a tie. That’s a challenge.

I’m speaking mainly from a male point of view here, but the issues for women are even more complicated because the options are so much more varied. That does give you, however, more ways to express your individual brand. So, there are advantages to being a woman in the still male-dominated speaking world.

3. Dress to kill.

My final bit of usual advice is to go high-quality and even expensive; you should feel and look great in what you’re wearing. The confidence that nice clothing imparts will give you a boost on the stage. Make sure it fits well and you can move in it. Too many men and women wear suits that don’t allow them to raise their arms, for example, because they’re tight-fitting. The result is an awkward (and less authoritative) physicality when you’re moving around the stage.

4. Dress to feel powerful.

Finally, the results of the study: “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” Rutchick says. I love that insight because of the importance for a speaker of not only showing up strong, but feeling that way, too. Apparently, wearing more-formal clothing helps people think broadly and holistically, rather than too mired in the details. That can only be good for a public speaker.

I had to apply all this advice to myself recently when I shot our new online course on public speaking. What was I to wear to show up on your computer screen in one or two-minute videos? I didn’t want to be too formal, because the little screen is inherently casual and I wanted to be able to connect. Yet I’m the authority, the teacher, for the course, so I had to be authoritative enough.

I decided to go with a jacket without the tie. You can be the judge of whether I succeeded, but now you know what I considered while getting ready.

So, put on the glad rags when you get ready to speak. Dressing up will help both you and the audience accept you as the star of the show.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.


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