Since the beginning of my career, people have asked me what to wear when speaking in public. I even recorded a video about it back in 2017.
However, the pandemic has changed how people approach attire in the workplace, and public speaking is no exception. It’s not just about being comfortable, it’s about expressing your authenticity in what you choose to wear.
Here are four steps to balance comfort and professionalism in public speaking:
1) Practice Self-Awareness: With strategic self-awareness, you can uncover opportunities to express yourself more fully. Ask yourself, how do I want to be perceived when I enter a room? What is important to me as a professional? What is comfortable for me and what kind of attire distracts me? When evaluating your responses, notice what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Doing some internal reflection can go a long way toward dressing as your confident, genuine self.
2) Know Your Audience: Prior to your speech or presentation, speak to the organizer about audience expectations and demographics. Attire varies widely based on industry, location, time of day, and event type, among other factors. While you want to be comfortable and authentic, you don’t want to distract your audience with what you’re wearing at the expense of your content. When you know more about your audience and their expectations, you’ll be able to tailor your personal style.
3) Know Your Setting: Will you be on camera? If so, avoid loud prints. Will you be indoors or outdoors? If indoors, will the temperature of the room be well regulated? Will you be seated on a panel or standing? What is the height of the stage (if there is one)? If you’re seated or high up above the audience, wear something with enough coverage that you can be comfortable. Avoid wearing anything that you will constantly have to adjust due to the setting as it will be uncomfortable for you and distracting to your audience.
4) Experiment & Observe Others: I recently wrote an article for Harvard Business Review, “The New Rules of Work Clothes”, sharing my experience when I switched from power stilettos to sparkly sneakers for my first big-stage appearance in over two years. I shared a photo of the sneakers on LinkedIn and was overwhelmed by the over 130,000 views and 1,000 comments on my post. Most of the comments were from my network of financial services professionals. I started polling my clients to understand what they were observing in their offices and learned that many were experiencing a similar shift toward confident-casual attire in professional settings. If you’re concerned about making a wardrobe change, talk to your peers, take small steps, and evaluate the response.
What’s the benefit of dressing for comfort and authenticity? In the article above, I interview investment executive Naima Judge who says, “It takes energy to not be your authentic self. If I can be more authentic, I can then use my energy to focus on my clients and uplift the people who report to me.”
While there have always been trends, there are no steadfast rules for attire when it comes to public speaking. As I share in the article, “At this very moment, as we continue our return to the office, we have a unique opportunity to rewrite the rules of office etiquette. What behaviors will we keep? Which outdated practices no longer serve us? Let’s create those rules ourselves and, in doing so, create space for others to bring their authentic selves to the office. We’ll feel more fulfilled and more confident as a result, and our feet will thank us.”