One question that always comes up when I work with a client on a speech is, “What should I wear?”
I only have average male fashion sense, which means I’m somewhere between hopeless and OK on a good day. But I have seen a lot of speakers, and I’ve learned a few rules. Follow them and you won’t go wrong.
Yes, these rules do contradict each other, but you have to figure out what works for you. Fashion is complicated.
1. Dress as well, or slightly better, than the audience.
If you show up at a Silicon Valley startup dressed like a banker—suit, tie, etc.—the audience will write you off as a hopeless case. The chance that you will connect with that audience becomes very small.
You want to dress as well as the audience or slightly better, but the emphasis is on “slightly.” You don’t want a big mismatch.
If you dress worse than the audience, you’ll simply look like you shouldn’t be there.
2. Dress consistently with your brand.
This one is tricky, because there are times when, say, an entrepreneur wants to wear a suit and tie—like when he meets with a banker. To the extent that you can, you should dress to mirror or embody your brand.
I’ve seen wildly uncomfortable entrepreneurs in ill-fitting suits and ties who would have looked better in something closer to their normal garb. If you’re a creative type, wear something that signals that. If you’re a boring banker, then wear the gray suit. If you’re a creative banker, please wear a little sign that says, “Don’t invest with me,” so I can see you coming. That leads me to my third rule …
3. Dress to feel like a million dollars.
Whatever outfit you end up in, think about how you feel while wearing it. If you feel great in a suit or Versace dress with high heels, then wear that. If you feel confident, that confidence will spill into your presentation and you will present better. But …
4. Dress in something that allows you to move.
A speaker must be able to move on stage, and some fashions severely restrict movement. That won’t work. You have to be able to get on and off—and around—the stage.
5. Dress like a grownup.
Your outfit needs to be appropriate to your age, ilk and style. Don’t try to dress like a hip teen if you’re 30 and talking to a high school audience. The results will be tragic. Act and dress your age. What you wear signals your tribe; don’t try to join one through costume if you don’t really belong.
6. Dress strategically.
Think about the audience. What accessory can you wear or what slight change can you make that will allow you to stand out from the crowd without looking freakish? A lot of Silicon Valley types wear suits to show they’re successful, but add brightly colored sneakers to show they’re still hip and rebellious. Your clothes send a message-figure out what you want to say with your style.
Every speaker needs to create a minimum of three on-stage wardrobes consistent with his brand and the other rules I’ve outlined:
1. The full fig: This is your top-of-the-line outfit. It’s appropriate for meeting with bankers or talking to important people at Davos or TED. It’s probably a suit or dress, but if it’s not, it should at least be—and look—expensive.
2. The upscale casual: This outfit will work for speeches and conferences in resort locations. These talks will have audiences dressed in a variety of styles, with an emphasis on casual and comfortable. Men might wear a sport coat, dress shirt without a tie and expensive jeans or trousers. Women would wear the equivalent.
Be careful, though. I recently spoke to an IT group in my upscale casual outfit and was astonished to find about half the audience in full fig. Were they all coming from job interviews? I had to work twice as hard to establish my authority at the outset.
3. The among the people: This is the outfit to wear when you’ll be among entrepreneurs or the South by Southwest crowd. The audience will be dressed in ripped jeans and t-shirts. If you show up in a suit, you’ll feel alien and the audience won’t listen to you. You might wear expensive jeans, a casual shirt and a sport coat, or the equivalent.
The idea is that you are an authority as a speaker, and you need to signal that sartorially. The audience will expect it. If you show up wildly mismatched with the audience, communication will be difficult and the audience will not judge your performance on its merits.
Fashion is hard to get right. I welcome suggestions, ideas and input from both the fashioned-challenged and experts.
A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.