How to dress right for your presentation

A common concern we hear from people planning a presentation is 'What on earth should I wear on the day?' Here are some pointers, with examples from expert presenters…

It might seem unfair, but audiences make very quick assumptions about their speaker even before you’ve uttered a word. Instinctively they process signals and form snap judgements based on your body language, your appearance and, yes, your outfit.

For the duration of your presentation you will probably be the authority on your given topic and it’s important that the audience feels that, whoever they may be. But if your style of dress doesn’t match your audience’s expectations, you create an opening for your communications to be challenged, and your performance could get skewed as people try to make sense of your wardrobe choices.

Here, then, are some key pointers for getting your outfit right – illustrated by some diversely dressed expert presenters… 

Dress as well as, or slightly better than your audience

Whether you’re a man or a woman, turning up to speak to a creative start-up in full business attire may mean you will not connect with your audience. The opposite could be said if you took the more casual approach when looking to raise funds from the bank.

Dressing as well as the audience, or slightly better, will help create an unspoken match. Dressing less well could seriously impair your chances to be taken seriously and, at worst, you will look as though you don’t belong.

When Prime Minister David Cameron spoke at TED 2010, for instance, he opted not to wear a tie but retained his suit. It was a subtle and softer shift from how people normally see him, and a nod to the relative informality of the occasion. But it was also a smart look that showed respect for his – probably less well-dressed – audience.

Reflect your brand

Dressing to reflect your brand may not always be possible – there will always be occasions when power dressing will make the difference to, for example, a room full of investors. However, mirroring what your business represents is a powerful way for you to embody what you are all about.

The design guru Jonathan Ive is a good example of someone who completely reflects Apple’s culture of simplicity and creativity. It would be hard to imagine him in a suit and tie – even, or perhaps especially, when speaking at Steve Jobs’ funeral.

Always feel your best

Whatever you decide to wear, it's fundamentally important that you feel great in it – in the sense of both stylish and physically comfortable.

Ideally you’ll be wearing something you’ve worn before – an outfit you know works visually and that you associate with a previous positive experience(s).

It sounds like common sense but wearing something that is comfortable to move around in is also pretty fundamental. We’ve seen people give an important talk whilst wincing as their new shoes begin to pinch, which is not a good look. And you need to know you can reach above your head and move quickly across your performance area if you have to.

Brené Brown, a great speaker, always seems incredibly at ease in whatever she wears…

Think about the audience strategically

What is it you want to say with your own style? Can you wear something that will send your own personal message? After a certain point in time, Steve Jobs never varied from black Issey Miyake turtlenecks, faded jeans and sneakers. The look always reminded us that he was not a conventional CEO. This can be a subtle shift from how people usually see you.

Understand your tribe

Be authentic to who you fundamentally are. Dressing like a teenager to impress a group of teenage skateboarders, when you’re 50, may not be your best move. Saying that, if you are 50 but also happen to be one of the world's greatest skateboarders like Rodney Mullen, you wouldn’t want to appear for a TED talk dressed like a lawyer…

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