Wardrobe what should a public speaker wearOne question that always comes up when working with a client on a speech – usually late in the process – is what should I wear?  I only have average Male Fashion Sense – which means I’m somewhere between hopeless and OK on a good day – but I have seen a lot of speeches and speakers, and I’ve learned a few rules.  Follow these and you won’t go far wrong.  And yes, these rules are in tension with one another – which is a fancy way of saying they are mutually contradictory.  Sorry; you have to figure out what works for you.  Fashion is complicated.

1.  Always dress as well or slightly better than the audience.  If you show up at a Silicon Valley start up dressed like a banker in the full regalia, suit, tie, and etc, you will be written off by that audience as a hopeless case.  The chance that you will connect with them becomes vanishingly small.  So you want to dress as well as the audience, or slightly better, but the emphasis is on slightly.  You don’t want a big mismatch.  If you dress worse than the audience, of course, you’ll simply look like you shouldn’t be there.

2.  Dress consistently with your brand.  This one is tricky, because there are times when that entrepreneur may want to put on the suit and tie – such as when you’re meeting with a banker.  But to the extent that you can, you should dress to mirror your brand, or embody it.  I’ve seen wildly uncomfortable entrepreneurs in an ill-fitting suit and tie who would have looked better in something closer to their normal garb.  So if you’re a creative type, wear something that signals that.  If you’re a boring banker, then wear the gray suit.  If you’re a creative banker, please wear a little sign that says, “Don’t invest with me,” so that I can see you coming.  Which leads me to my third rule….

3.  Dress to feel like a million dollars.  Whatever costume you end up with, you should think about how it makes you feel.  If you feel great in a suit, or in a Versace dress with mile-high heels, then you should consider wearing that because if you feel confident, that will spill over into your presentation and your persona and you will present better.  But….

4.  Dress in something that allows you to move.  A speaker needs to be able to move on stage, and some fashions restrict movement so severely that you’ll look ridiculous when you try to walk.  That won’t work.  You have to be able to get on and off – and around – the stage.

5.  Dress like a grownup.  Unless you are 12.  Your costume needs to be appropriate to your age, ilk, and style.  Don’t try to dress like a hip teen if you’re over 30 and are talking to a high school audience.  The results will be tragic.  Act and dress your age.  What you wear signals your tribe; don’t try to join one through costume if you don’t really belong.

6.  Dress strategically.  Think about the audience.  What accessory can you wear, or slight change can you make, that will allow you to stand out from the crowd, without looking freakish?  A lot of Silicon Valley types wear suits (to show that they’re successful) but add brightly colored sneakers (to show that they’re still hip and rebellious).  The costume you wear sends a message; figure out what you want to say with your style.

My advice is that every speaker needs to create a minimum of three on-stage wardrobes, consistent with your brand and the other rules I’ve outlined.  First, The Full Fig.  This is your top-of-the-line outfit, appropriate for the meeting with your bankers, or talking to Really Important People at Davos or the Real TED.  It’s probably a suit or dress, but if it’s not, it should at least be – and look – expensive.

Second, The Upscale Casual.  This outfit will work for many a speech and conference that takes place in a resort location with an audience that will be dressed in a variety of styles, with an emphasis on the casual and comfortable.  It might be a sport coat, dress shirt no tie, and (expensive) jeans or trousers for the men, and the moral equivalent for women.  But be very careful.  I recently spoke to an IT group in Upscale Casual, and was astonished to find about half the audience wearing the Full Fig.  Were they all coming from job interviews?  I had to work twice as hard to establish my authority — my right to speak to them — at the outset.  Clearly, my sense of the IT crowd needs updating.

Third, The Among the People.  This is the outfit to wear when you’re going as native as you can, among the entrepreneurs, or the SXSW crowd, or any group that includes people who actually think about wearing Onesies outside.  The audience will be dressed in ripped jeans and t-shirts, so if you show up in a suit you’ll feel alien and the audience won’t listen to you.  You might wear expensive jeans, a casual shirt, and a sports coat or the moral equivalent.

The idea is that you are a temporary authority as a speaker and as such you need to signal that sartorially.  The audience will expect you to do so.  But if you show up wildly mismatched with the audience, communication will be difficult and your performance will not be judged on its merits.

This is a tricky subject to get right.  I welcome suggestions, ideas, and input from both the fashioned-challenged and the experts.






  1. Nick:

    I think this is sage advice and have heard this from others in the field. This looks to be on the general rules side of things. I am interested to hear more about…

    1. What about colors?
    — Does wearing a certain color provide different impressions?
    2. I have heard wearing certain things that may make you stand out as a speaker, can also work against you… E.g. a red scarf may draw attention away from you/your message
    3. Expensive Jeans – I disagree on this one. NICE looking jeans that fit you well, are good. They don’t have to be expensive… Unless you are speaking to a fashion conscious crowd looking for a label.

    1. Hi, Matthew — thanks for the comment. A couple of follow-on notes. First, colors. If at all possible, you have to figure out what the background color of the stage set you’re speaking in front of is. Stage sets are often basic black. That means if you wear black you’ll disappear. So it’s a matter of coordinating with the set — that’s more important than “Yellow Power Tie” sorts of color games. Second, you need to know the color symbolism of the country/culture you’re speaking to. In some cultures, red is good luck and white is death. In others, the meaning of those colors is essentially reversed. So figure out cultural symbolism. Only after that should you worry about how colors affect you. And yes, it is a good idea to get a sense from someone who is expert in these things what colors look good on you and what don’t.

      Your second question, about, for example, scarfs working against you: people only notice the scenery when the main show is boring. So as long as you dress appropriately, the occasional daring fashion move can work fine — as long as you’re a compelling speaker.

      Finally, on expensive jeans — yes, nice jeans that fit you are good. But in many spots around the country, as for example, in Silicon Valley, jeans set off a fashion alarm if they’re not upscale enough. So of course get ones that fit and look good, but don’t skimp too much on the brand!

  2. I remember a terrific story from Simon Sinek. His normal garb is pretty casual (jeans) and he was asked to speak at an internal conference for a big corporate. If you’ve seen his TEDx talk you’ll know he’s all about soul and purpose and all those good things. Anyway, he sat in on the earlier part of the event, to get the vibe, and was disturbed by some of the messages coming through from the stage. Not at all what they claimed in their vision and values statement! So when he got to speak he told them so! This was a pretty profound message for the audience, and there was clearly an air of tension about the room as a pleaded for a return to ‘the why’.

    After the conference, Simon was somewhat apprehensive about how the leadership would react to his heretical ideas. Then the phone call came…the conference organiser who booked him. What was the feedback, he asked. Only one thing, she said…they were rather concerned that you wore jeans on stage!

    1. Hi, Andrew — thanks for the comment and the great story. I love it, because it points up the importance of costume (and the shallowness of some leadership).

  3. Enjoyed the read – this may be appropriate for the business world, however experience has taught me content overcomes audience prejudice based on dress and grooming.

    An effective introduction, respect the audience and show you’re enjoying the experience no matter how hard.

    I often can’t afford to dress to the standard my clients do – I can’t help being old and ugly but the content is strong enough to carry my deficiencies (oh that is after 35 years of public speaking to audiences from 30 to 30,000)

    1. Hi, Mark — thanks for your comment and insight. I agree that great content can overcome audience prejudice — but why make them work that hard?

  4. I ask this question for every meeting with a new client or prospect or for any conference I attend. Sometimes it feels silly and shallow to ask about dress code but, as you say, it can be really, really important. For these occasions and for speeches, I think the ideal situation is people don’t remember what you wore. Though it’s a little different if your “costume” is part of your brand, generally people should remember you and your ideas, not the funny crease in your jeans or the colorful pattern on your shirt cuffs.

    1. Hi, Rob — thanks for the comment and you’re right — if you’ve picked your wardrobe right, no one will notice. Except if you’re trying to make a statement — the creative person speaking to the roomful of bankers, to cite the cliched example. But in the end everything you do should be in service to the message, not the costume!

  5. To be a great and famous public speaker perfect training is needed. People usually do not take this seriously. But I am agree with you that perfect training from some good professionals are needed.

  6. I had your attire post in mind as I prepared for a recent talk for a business breakfast group. Knowing the audience, I went for ‘upscale casual’. When it came to taking the stage, imagine my surprise when I saw most of them wearing comedy Christmas sweaters and, in one case, a turkey hat! Still, it gave me an opportunity to mention your blog as an ice-breaking opener. Have a great festive break Nick.

    1. Hi, Andrew, and thanks for your comment and great story. I hadn’t anticipated that phenomenal British custom of appalling Christmas sweaters (not to mention hats). All I can say is, stay proud, stay dignified!

  7. Friends:

    I’m glad to see this subject receiving the imprimatur of Nick Morgan’s blog.

    A few years back, I checked my look before an important meeting and was dissatisfied with my reflection.

    I wanted to convey “simple, stylish elegance” but didn’t know how to realize this aim. Also, because I live in the stylish NYC-area, it’s not just a matter of throwing on a suit. I need The Right Suit. So I located a well-recommended image consultant to help me (theresaminutillo.com, FYI).

    The return on investment for getting a pro’s guidance is significant. Dressing the part (such an apt phrase!) gives me instant credibility that feeds my confidence level in any setting. I’m still pleasantly surprised to see myself looking simple, stylish, and elegant when reviewing my speech tapes. ☺

    Diane R

    1. Diane — thanks for your comment and story. Wonderful when you can watch yourself and feel happy that you’re “simple, stylish, and elegant!” Bravo!

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