Supercompetent Speaking: Top 10 Dress-for-Speaking-Success Tips

If you make a clothing misstep, you may find yourself swimming upstream during the course of your presentation.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

Nature has programmed human beings to assess strangers almost instantly for threat or value. While this capacity is less important today than it was a few thousand years ago, our biology hasn’t yet caught up to our culture. In a very real sense, then, style often trumps substance—especially in environments where people only have a few minutes to get to know you.

Hence your need, when you step onto a stage or behind a podium, to immediately make a positive first impression based on your appearance alone. Like it or not, how you dress communicates your image, personality, and even your identity to your listeners. If you make a clothing misstep, you may find yourself swimming upstream during the course of your presentation—and you might not make the kind of impact you intended.

So don’t take chances. Keep these pointers in mind:

  1. Prepare your presentation outfit well in advance, so you won’t have to scramble at the last minute trying to get out the door. Examine your clothes for tears, stains, odors, and missing buttons. Stash away a few safety pins, too, to help you deal with last-minute wardrobe malfunctions. Ladies, carry extra stockings in case of a run in your first pair.
  2. Be ready for disaster! I very, very rarely check my bag, so my presentation clothes aren’t lost with my luggage. When I must check luggage, I don’t travel in the clothes I plan to speak in, so I don’t end up looking rumpled and disheveled; however, I do wear nice clothes I could wear on the platform if needed.
  3. Pay close attention to your grooming, and keep your hair out of your eyes and face. Guys, trim your facial hair neatly. Ladies, if you use makeup, leave it understated, minimal, and neutral, except for your eyes, which should pop from the stage. Guys, powder any bald spots and your forehead and nose.
  4. If you wear glasses, avoid unusual, distracting frames. Get non-glare glass. If possible, consider wearing contact lenses for the presentation instead.
  5. Dress smartly; high-quality fabrics tailored in ways that flatter your body work best. Invest in an expensive suit each year and spend more than you think you can afford on high quality. Try not to come across as colorless or dull, but avoid excessively loud colors or distracting styles. Don’t wear overly tight clothing, because it can inhibit your movements and it’s distracting. Ladies, avoid low necklines, so the audience pays attention to what you say, not your figure. In general, your clothes just need to look nice and presentable, and you should feel comfortable, confident, and well to do in what you wear.
  6. Find out what the attire will be for the audience, and then dress one level above that. If the attendees are wearing business casual, wear business. If they are casual, go business casual. While you shouldn’t overdo it, you can’t go wrong if you overdress somewhat. Never dress down, because it either makes you look sloppy and unprofessional, or suggests you don’t care enough about your audience to dress up for them. They expect you to be dressed nicer than they are.
  7. Make sure your shoes are polished and in good repair, especially when speaking from a stage—because your shoes will end up at or near your audience’s eye level, and many of them willnotice. Leave your noisy shoes in the closet. Ladies, don’t wear heels that make you wobble; guys, forget the cowboy boots and moccasins.
  8. Avoid noisy, flashy jewelry, especially earrings and bracelets. I’ve watched disasters unfold with necklaces that repeatedly hit a lavaliere mic and dangling earrings that click against an over-the-ear headset during the entire presentation. Wedding rings are fine, plus a watch if you use one for timing.
  9. Remove everything from your pockets before your presentation, especially coins, so you’re not tempted to jingle. Remember to turn off your cell phone (I’ve had mine ring from my purse stashed behind the lectern).
  10. Remove your conference nametag or badge with the ribbons!

Ultimately, you’rethe show—not your clothing or accessories. So do everything you can to dress in a presentable but non-distracting way. Unless how you dress informs and contributes to your talk, your clothing should fade into the background. You want the audience to remember your message, not those outlandish shoes or that obnoxious tie.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the bestselling author of several books, including “What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do: Reduce Tasks, Increase Results, and Save 90 Minutes a Day” (Berrett-Koehler, 2012). Stack is the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA) and has been awarded the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP). Since 1992, Stack has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. Her productivity improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. For more information, visit www.TheProductivityPro.comand

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