Supercompetent Speaking: Proper Presentation Attire

5 tips to help you nail down your presentation attire, so youメll always make an effective first impression.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

Most business professionals quickly learn and understand the basics of presentation attire. But I’ve come to the conclusion that a many people suffer from colorblindness, complete lack taste, or else have no idea how to dress professionally. Admittedly, for a few speakers, dysfunctional dress is their shtick (you know who you are). But the rest need a quick review on image on the platform.

Every business school curriculum should require at least one pass-or-fail class explaining, in simple terms, how to dress yourself so people will take you seriously. There’s no better way to establish credibility than to look professional from the minute you walk out on stage—and no easier way to be distract your listeners from your message if you don’t.

Many people select clothing because it flatters them, which is important, but there are other details to consider. So in this article, I offer some important tips to help you nail down your presentation attire, so you’ll always make an effective first impression.

  1. Quality and fit. Wear only high-quality, clean, well-tailored clothing in excellent repair—from your collar right down to the shine on your shoes. (When you’re standing on the stage, people DO look at your shoes!) You don’t have to buy your clothing from Savile Row, but do buy the best professional apparel you can afford. Spend more than you typically would and invest in one very nice suit each year. Avoid clothing that wrinkles easily (I wear St. John knits). If I’m not wearing black, I might carry a spare outfit, in case I spill coffee on myself (if you know me, you’d know this is not a stretch). Your attire should suit the occasion; ask about the dress code for the event early on, and overdress slightly. I always dress one notch above the attendees; if they are wearing business casual, I’ll wear business attire. If you’ve gained weight recently, make sure it still fits before you pack it (trust me).
  2. Freedom of movement. However nice the outfit, the audience won’t be impressed if your shirt pulls up enough to show your belly when you lift your arm to gesture with your laser pointer. So in addition to fitting well, your outfit must allow freedom of movement in all directions. Don’t wear something you have to tug at or adjust continually. Test out all kinds of movement in your outfit, from walking to gesturing to bending over (ahem ladies) and squatting (often crucial actions while setting up for a talk). Try not to sacrifice comfort, but do make sure you can perform any expected actions, including (if necessary) crawling under a table to plug something in. You MUST be completely comfortable, without having to think a single thing about your outfit. If you think about your clothes while on stage, buy a different outfit.
  3. Setting. I find out in advance about the color of the background I’ll be speaking in front of, so I don’t inadvertently wear colors that clash with or fade into it. Don’t wear dizzying patterns on your jacket that will “move” with the camera and make the audience feel nauseous. Ditto with too many sparkles, ladies. Wear complementary colors if possible, so you’ll stand out without being overwhelming. My clients love it when I wear an outfit that either matches or complements their logo or conference theme. Also, take extra care with the pieces of your outfit the audience will see. Women, if you’re sitting at a table as part of a panel, check to see if it’s skirted, or you’ll have to be very careful if you’re wearing a skirt. If you’re sitting in an armchair or on a couch, try getting up and down a few times, and check on your jacket. If you’re standing on a stage and not behind a podium, your shoes will be eye-level for most of the audience. If you’re standing behind a lectern with an iMag projecting your image larger than life, be careful with your tie, collar, and lapels. Take all these factors into account.
  4. Distractor factors. Flashy jewels, hats, big earrings that jingle, costume elements, conference ribbons, name badges, pens in your hands, pin-on buttons, and other accessories you might ordinarily wear at a large event just draw attention away from your message during a presentation. Remove them before you go on. Be sure you’ve silenced your phone and all electronics. Don’t tap a pen on the lectern. Don’t twirl your presentation remote in your hand. Don’t twirl your hair. Don’t crack your knuckles. Don’t pace like a tiger. Seriously—I’ve seen all of this. Guys, take all the coins out of your pockets; not only will they jingle annoyingly, they’ll give you an excuse to put your hands in your pockets and play with your change, a practice you generally want to avoid. Wear glasses with non-reflective lenses, so they aren’t annoying and distracting to the audience.
  5. General appearance pointers. While there’s no reason you can’t dress fashionably, don’t overdo it; you’ll rarely go wrong if you take a more conservative approach to presentation attire. Women, don’t show too much skin (that should go without saying but doesn’t). Both genders should get their colors done and take advantage of the colors that emphasizes their best features, such as your eyes and hair. Black, for example, offers slimming qualities. Blue flatters almost any complexion. If you have light hair—whether blond, gray, or white—a darker suit can help bring your face into focus.

Give yourself a final once-over before going onstage. Check your overall outline, to make sure everything is smoothly in place. I have to say this—check on the bottom of your shoes and from behind as well for stray shirttails, toilet paper, hanging slips, and skirts tucked into pantyhose. Even if you don’t intend to present your backside to anyone, you may end up working the crowd, inevitably revealing all sides of yourself to your audience. If you can’t arrange the right sort of mirrors for this, simply ask someone how you look.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe that help attendeesachieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack is theauthor or co-author of 10 books, most recently “What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do.” Connect with her at;; or

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