What to Wear When Presenting

Whether we like it or not, people are making judgements about us from the moment they first see us. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.  In fact research undertaken by Michael Solomon at the Graduate School of Business, New York University, found that people make 11 judgements about you in the first 7 seconds. These include whether they perceive you to be credible, trustworthy, honest, believable and competent. Therefore, when we are speaking in public it is crucial to think about the image we are presenting as this can have an effect on how the audience perceives us and receives our message.

So what are the considerations?

Firstly, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where is the presentation taking place?
  • What time of day is it?
  • What is the occasion?
  • Who will be in the audience?
  • What are their expectations?
  • What is the dress code?
  • What image are you aiming to project?

Getting your outfit right can be tricky so I asked several colour and image experts for some tips. In a future post I will talk specifically about colour, but for now let’s focus on clothing and style.

Always be occasion-appropriate a.k.a. know your audience

Karen Finlayson from Colour Elements says “Your appearance is your non-verbal greeting – just as we might greet a person in their teens differently from a retired person, similarly it’s beneficial to consider modifying your appearance for different audiences.  The more easily people relate to you, the less distracted they will be by your appearance.”

Choosing an outfit that is appropriate to the occasion and the audience is crucial to establishing your authority and credibility. If everyone else is in a suit and you turn up in jeans and a t-shirt you will have to work harder to convince your audience why they should listen to you.

Don’t stand out from the crowd – just make sure you look different

In order for people to focus on what you’re saying the clothes you wear should be similar to the clothes that audience members would wear.  However, Karen recommends that there should always be an unexpected element that keeps the audience alert and helps make you memorable.  She suggests, “Rather than hinting at an out-and-out rebel this might simply be the use of a contrasting colour in a tie or a piece of jewellery with personality.”

Judith Campbell from Feel Brand New says it’s important to know your own style and develop how to look like the best version of yourself. Repetition of what works for you can become a very distinctive style e.g. same cut of trouser, always wearing a scarf, creative facial hair, red lipstick. She agrees with Karen that it is important to inject pizzazz into your wardrobe, “You don't have to reinvent yourself, just learn how to add colour, print, texture that fits with your style personality.”

I recently attended an event at which Claire Boyles from Success Matters spoke about finding your business voice. Claire suggests keeping your outfit in line with your branding. For example she is known for wearing turquoise, a colour that features in her logo and business branding. Regardless of the style of clothing she wears, this consistency and repetition of colour means that whenever people see the colour turquoise they think of her. What better way to be memorable!

Your fabrics of choice are your hidden weapon

I have had the experience of wearing a flimsy cotton frock as a costume for a singing performance that I was particularly nervous about. Normally I’m pretty good at hiding any nerves I’m feeling or using them to my advantage to enhance my performance. However, during this particular performance my legs were trembling so badly that my dress was shaking! I’ve seen other examples of this as well so I always suggest that my clients choose a heavier fabric and a style that won’t show any quivering! Another tip is to choose fabrics that don’t crease where possible, or if they are likely to crease and you are travelling, it is a good idea to bring your outfit to change into when you arrive.

Karen also advises to choose your fabric with care. “Smooth fabrics will always look more authoritative, they indicate that you are more in control.  Textured fabrics look more casual and can look downright untidy.  Light reflective fabrics are often used for evening wear so be careful in your use of these fabrics for business – a small amount can make an outfit look sharper but larger amounts can look inappropriate for daytime public speaking.  With those points in mind consider the timing of your public speaking engagement and your audience.  People who work in services such as counselling will often feel more relaxed listening to a speaker who looks more relaxed (i.e. wearing tactile textures) whereas an audience from the finance sector will usually prefer to listen to a speaker who exudes control through form fitting shapes and smooth fabrics.”

Look good, feel good

Judith Campbell says 91 per cent of women agreed with the statement, “When I look good, I feel good.”  For many of us clothes are so much more than something to cover our modesty and keep us warm.  They can be confidence-boosters with transformative powers.  You probably have garments and accessories that make you feel great such as a favourite pair of high heels or a lucky tie. Just putting on these garments can help to change your posture and the way you carry yourself, and even your change your behaviour to enhance your performance.

It’s also important to choose an outfit that fits and flatters so that you feel great. Janice Bruce, Design Consultant for Home and Fashion, suggests dressing to suit your body type; you can minimise areas by selecting a style that skims your body rather than hugs it and by clever use of colour e.g. dark colours can sometimes be better on top is you are disguising a larger bust size, similarly for the bottom if a larger hip size.

Importantly, your outfit should be clean and well ironed with no missing buttons or falling hemlines and your shoes should be polished. Shoes with rubber soles are better if you are on a wooden floor as they make less noise when you move around. Think about your overall look including make-up, hairstyle and carefully selected accessories (avoid jewellery that jangles).

Ultimately though, it’s about ensuring that whatever you choose to wear is appropriate, comfortable, allows you to move well and makes you feel great.

What do you think? Have you seen any presentations in which the speaker’s outfit and image were spot on? What about those who got it completely wrong? How did it impact on their presentation?

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction.

Mel's book 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!' is available on
Amazon. To find out more go to www.melsherwood.com or follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_