Please enjoy the latest edition of GPS Speaking Tips, a monthly newsletter with tips and tricks on public speaking and presentation skills. To receive these free monthly tips in your Inbox, click here.
A few months ago, I was at a conference in Washington, DC preparing to lead a workshop. Right before I went on stage, a colleague said five words which drained my confidence.
He asked, “What’s that on your suit?”
Two minutes before I got up in front of 100+ people, I discovered my best black suit had long white tears in the back. I made it through the workshop, but I didn’t feel very comfortable on stage, especially when the photographer walked up behind me for an audience shot.
Both men and women ask me what they should wear when speaking in public. Whether it’s a formal occasion or a casual meeting, here are some tips to keep in mind as you prepare for your speech.
1. Dress comfortably. On the day of the speech, you’ll be worried about the room, the audience, the AV, and the speech itself. You might be sweating with heat or shaking with cold. You want your clothing to be the last thing on your mind. So whether you’re in a suit or a dress, make sure you’re comfortable and have room to breathe. Wear shoes you can walk around in without tripping and which don’t give you blisters. And if you’re speaking on a panel, make sure you can comfortably and professionally sit down on stage.
2. Dress the way you’d like to be perceived. Check with the event organizer about the dress code of the event, then dress the way you’d like people to perceive you. We make split-second decisions about people based on what they wear and how they carry themselves. Do you want to be perceived as a professional? Wear a well-cut suit. Do you want to look like a folksinger? Then choose a long skirt or jeans and boots. Whichever you choose, be intentional and strategic. And make sure your colors don’t send the wrong signal; in some cultures and political parties, colors have very specific meanings.
3. Dress conservatively. You never know who will be in the audience and who will watch a video of the speech. If there’s any doubt that your skirt is too short or too tight or that your shirt is too outlandish, then change to something you know is appropriate for the occasion.If your speech is going to be televised, wear solid colors instead of prints so your clothes don’t look too noisy on camera. Don’t hide yourself, but don’t make your appearance the focus. When you speak, your words and your energy should be the main focus, not your outfit.
Disclaimer: if the way you dress is a special part of your “act”, that’s fine – as long as it’s intentional and effective.
4. Keep your hair away from your face. This applies more often for women but it can certainly apply to men as well. If you have long hair, pull it back from your face and make sure it stays behind you. Constantly playing with or fixing your hair, your tie, or your glasses detracts from your message and undermines your authority as a speaker. When I give a speech, I usually put my hair in a neat bun or pony tail – not because it’s my most flattering look, but because I simply don’t want to worry about it during the speech and because I want the audience to see my face and connect with my facial expressions.
5. Do a dress rehearsal. Try on your outfit in advance, especially if it’s new. If you just dry cleaned your suit, put it on to make sure the cleaners got that stain out. When I was preparing to give my TEDx talk, I practiced the speech wearing different outfits to see what felt most comfortable and what looked most professional – especially since I needed to pick up a guitar half-way through the speech and didn’t want to show the audience my midriff when I lifted the guitar above my head. If I was going to give a speech I knew would be uploaded to both TED.com and YouTube.com and which would become my professional calling card, I wanted to be absolutely certain that I looked my best.
No matter whether you’re wearing a business suit, traditional clothing, or jeans and a turtleneck – be strategic, be intentional, and be prepared. On the day of the speech, your clothing should be the last thing on your mind. Take a deep breath, focus on sharing your message with your audience, and you will be great.
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