We humans think with our eyes before we think with our brains. Visual information is hugely important for our cave-dweller brains, and when it comes to wooing an audience, how you look matters.
Happily, you don’t have to worry about your body type, or your size, or other variables out of your control. Rather, we’re talking about sartorial matters. I won’t go so far to say that the clothes make the speaker, but they do help.
Here are the criteria for dressing for the podium:
1. Your clothes must suit the audience’s conventions or standards of dress
The way you would dress for a presentation at an accountant’s conference would be different from the way you would dress at a fitness industry convention, even if the topic you are speaking about is the same. At the accountant’s conference, a sharp two-piece suit might be the norm and if you strayed too far from that, you could risk making your audience feel that you don’t understand their professional decorum. But that same two-piece suit could be overly stuffy or snobbish to the people at the fitness convention. Before choosing your clothes, do some digging into your audience’s world and figure out what kind of unwritten dress codes may exist. You don’t need to model yourself after your audience in every way, but you shouldn’t stand out like a clown at an undertaker’s convention.
2. Your clothes must suit both your personality and the mood of your topic
Even though you want to be able to relate to the crowd’s style, you also need to reflect your own personality and topic. What do you like to communicate through your clothing choices? What it is about yourself that you want your audience to know and that you can express visually by the colour of your shoes or the way you style your hair? What sort of mood does your topic have, and how can you express and reinforce that mood with your clothing? Look for the intersection of these factors with your audience’s sense of fashion and aesthetic, and you’ll be able to find an outfit that suits your personality and overall mood while still being relatable to the audience.
3. You need to be able to move comfortably
Body language is important in public speaking, and your clothing should allow you to move freely and comfortably. Additionally, clothing that doesn’t allow you to move freely and with ease can increase self-consciousness and nervousness. For men, the biggest offenders are suit jackets that are too tight across the shoulders and too restrictive through the armpits and back. For women, it’s skirts that ride up and overly high heels or other uncomfortable shoes. Here are specific things to consider:
- Suit jackets: While you don’t need to be able to catch a football on stage, you do need a decent range of motion through your arms to gesture comfortably.
- Pants and skirts: For men and women, your pants should fit you properly and not need to be adjusted and hiked up during your talk. I’ve seen way too many male speakers tugging up their pants throughout their presentation as ill-fitting waistbands causes them to migrate southwards. For women, the more common danger is the creeping skirt hemline. Make sure your skirt stays where you want it to avoid the uncomfortable (and drafty) feeling of excessive leg exposure.
- Shoes and high heels: your shoes should be broken in and comfortable to stand in for at least two hours. Foot pain is very distracting. If you wear high heels, keep them to kitten-heel height – 1.5 inches or less, and be sure you are able to walk quietly in them. Pump heels clacking loudly against a stage are both annoying and distracting.
4. You must feel good and confident in your clothes
No matter what your shape or size, you will perform better if you feel good about how your clothes look. Get an outfit that fits properly and flatters your shape. Don’t equate size with style or attractiveness. Your audience can’t see the size label on your pants or dress. What’s more, they wouldn’t care if they could, and neither should you! Go for something that works well on you, makes you smile and feel proud. If you can’t find something that works perfectly off the rack, get an item tailored so that it looks and feels great. It’s worth the extra money.
You don’t need to invest in a whole bunch of really expensive clothes to look sharp or put together during your presentation. Have one or two ‘presentation’ outfits to start with, and build things up from there. I personally rotate between just a couple of pairs of pants, skirts, and jackets, which I mix up with various comfortable tops. The added bonus is that limited choice means you get to cut down on time spent wondering what to wear.
You owe it to yourself to look great on stage. The combination of clothes that feel good, suit your personality, and that respect the audience’s own unwritten style codes will create a fantastic impression from the moment you walk on stage and will give your whole presentation an instant, nearly effortless boost.