I’ve posted several times about what speakers should wear over the decade I’ve been blogging. It’s time for an update, because there’s some new research on what the science of dress dictates.

First of all, new research shows that formal business attire – suits for men, equivalent for women – increases your ability to think big ideas, abstract ideas, creative ideas.  All of those are good things for speakers, so suit up.  Consistent, of course, with several other important aspects of dress:  that it be consistent with your brand, that it be better than the audience, but not too much better, and that it be relevant to your talk.  So, for example, if you’re at an entrepreneurs’ conference in Silicon Valley, and everyone is dressed in t-shirts and jeans, you might wear a sports coat, but a suit would probably be overkill.  Bankers, on the other hand…..are going to expect a suit.  Maybe even a tie.

We negotiate better in a suit than in casual clothing.  So if you’re undertaking significant audience interaction, you may want to keep in mind that dressing up has the effect of empowering you in several ways.

But what if you’re speaking on creativity?  Then a suit could send the signal that you’re not really very creative.  In that case you’ll want to vary the more formal attire in some ways from the subtle to the not-so-subtle depending on your brand, again, and on the iconic statement you’re trying to make.  Think of Steve Jobs’ trademark black turtleneck and jeans.  He was signaling that he was different – not the standard corporate exec.  It worked very well for him.

One other study, fondly called the “red sneaker effect” by researchers, found that if you vary from the norm in a subtle way – wearing a red bowtie with your suit, or those red sneakers with your academic attire – then you will be perceived as more powerful and competent by the audience.  That probably happens because the audience makes the assumption that if you’re able to break the rules just a little you have confidence and authority.  Whereas if you break the rules too much you’re seen either as clueless or incompetent.  Or crazy.

The issue of dress is a very complicated one, because dress is one of the primary ways that we signal our attitudes, social status, relationship to the people around us, and a host of other issues.  Clothing is a sign – of status, profession, attitude, and so on.  So you want to think very carefully about your dress when you’re going to be standing in front of an audience, since all eyes will be upon you.

Finally, keep these three rules of thumb in mind, and you won’t go far wrong:  1) always dress a little better than the audience; 2) dress in a way that signals you’re at the top of your profession, category, or expertise; and 3) dress in a way that subtly shows you can break the rules with impunity.  The trick is not to take any of these rules of thumb too far.  You always want to dress in clothing that you’re comfortable in, that allows you to move easily, and that makes you feel like a million bucks.

My advice to clients is always to go to a top-end clothiers and splurge on a speaking outfit that makes you look fabulous.  You won’t regret sartorial splendor when all eyes are upon you.

11 Comments

  1. Good stuff here Nick. I’d add a few things based on my experience of having to consider what to wear about 40 times a year.

    I ask the conference organizer what the audience will be wearing so I don’t have to guess. I also look on the event website for images or video from the past year to double check on what I’m told.

    I consider any requirements that the organizer says as a guide. If they say the event requires speakers to wear “business attire” yet everyone else is in jeans and a polo shirt, I will weigh the “requirement” as merely a suggestion. I’ve never had an event planner call me out on not wearing what they asked.

    Industries make a difference. Banking and Insurance are more formal so I might go with a tie in those industries.

    Some countries are more formal and some less. I once (stupidly) wore a tie in Amsterdam and I was mocked on Twitter. The unwritten rule in the Netherlands is sport coat and no tie. Never did that again in subsequent gigs there. Many Asian countries and some eastern European countries are more formal. I always wear a tie in Japan for example.

    And another small point to remember (which I forgot once) – when speaking in the southern hemisphere, the season is the opposite of the northern. I don’t know what I was thinking but showed up in winter in Sydney with my summer stuff.

    1. Thanks, David — very good and specific stuff here in your comment. Industries, cultures, and specific events all make a difference. Always check ahead of time!

  2. Good perspective. I’ve struggle with this one a bit. As you specifically mention, I speak about innovation (and its cousin, creativity). My preferred attire is a nice pair of dark jeans that from a distance don’t look like jeans. A fancy shirt (usually Robert Graham) untucked. And a sport coat. Usually about a quarter of the way through, I take off my jacket and roll up my sleeves. I do have a high-end suit I sometimes wear, but I actually feel less creative and more stuffy. However I wear that when business attire is expected. I specially ask my client innadvance about the dress code for the event if business casual I go with the jeans.

    1. Thanks, Stephen — it’s interesting how the concept of business casual has changed from trousers to jeans. The high-end jean manufacturers must be doing handsprings. But your comment makes clear that it is a shifting concept and you do need to check repeatedly and with different clients and venues.

    1. Hi, John — thanks for the comment. As Steve Martin said in one of his movies — “Always dress better than they do, Kid!”

  3. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for this. Great article!

    do you see that these rules vary at all, or are more specific, for women? It seems that I’ve seen more male speakers in jeans (for an engagement considered business casual or about a more creative subject) than I have women.

    Shannon

    1. Thanks, Shannon — I do think that the rules apply to women speakers, with the appropriate translations for women’s attire. As you point out, jeans constitute a different signal on women than on men. That said, I do think that some women could look very appropriate in the jeans/coat attire I was discussing. It’s just that women have a much wider array of possible dress styles than men do — with the corresponding complexities and traps that go with increased choice. There was a reason why Einstein always wore the same suit and shirt.

    1. Hi, Archie — when you’re as rich and famous as Richard Branson, then you can where whatever you like. But you didn’t read the piece very closely. I wasn’t recommending a tie — just a suit — and only under certain circumstances. Smart casual is indeed the way forward — mostly.

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