It’s time for the 2018 update on what a speaker should wear for an important speech.  And they’re all important, right?  I was inspired to re-visit this topic by a recent study that found that the more clothing you’re wearing, the smarter we’re going to think you are.  And conversely, the less clothing you have on, the dumber we’re going to take you to be.

Think about what this means when you put on that sleeveless dress, women, or that expensive, cool-looking casual t-shirt, men.  It means you’re going to look less brilliant than if you covered your arms.

Apparently, we humans are pretty simple creatures.  If you show up in front of us with skin exposed, we’re going to think about your body.  If you’re wearing lots of clothing, we’re going to think about your mind.

With that admonition, let’s look at how a speaker should dress.

1.Start with you.  You want to look and feel fabulous.  That means spending some real money at a high-end fashionista place.  Bespoke tailoring, men, and the equivalent in high fashion for women.  Just not sleeveless.  The idea is that you’ll carry yourself with more confidence if you’re dressed to the nines, whatever they are.  That confident “I know I look great” body language is very hard to fake; it happens almost effortlessly if you are dressed well.

2.Then think about your message.  What’s the idea you’re conveying?  If you’re a banker, a doctor, or a hit man, then dress more conservatively.  If you’re a creativity consultant, then think about something a little wilder.  If you’re a surfer, then think California chic.  Because the first thing the audience sees is what you’re wearing, it should be highly consistent with, and redolent of, your messaging, branding, and tribe.

3.Then think about the audience.  Because you and the audience need to find some sort of connection in order to communicate well, you need to end up somewhere near them in costume splendor.  You can’t be in a three-piece suit if they’re all dressed for the beach; you’ll look too stuffy to talk to them.  On the other hand, you can’t show up in beachwear if it’s a bankers’ convention.

Did I say this clothing thing wasn’t easy?  It’s not.

4.Dress in something that allows for stage movement. You don’t want to experience wardrobe malfunctions, and you need to be able to circulate comfortably on stage.  So don’t dress to the nines if that means you’re straightjacketed.

5.Finally, dress to set yourself apart. 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).  Finding that one little bit of difference can really make for a memorable stage costume.

You will probably have come to the conclusion that there is no one combination of clothes that can fit all these criteria, and I’m afraid you’re right.  Come as close as you can, make some choices, and wax strong in the knowledge that you’re going to kill it.

And develop three outfits – first, your top-of-the-line, when-I’m-on-stage-with-Presidents-and-Defense-Ministers outfit.  Save time and note in your will that you want to be buried in this one.  Second, your upscale casual outfit.  This is a slight step down from the first one, for those casual conferences where people do wear jeans and Ts and you’d look like a banker if you showed up in No. 1.  Unless, of course, you’re a banker.

Finally, your I’m-one-of-you outfit. Let’s say you’re talking to Safari Tour Guides and they all show up in khaki bush jackets.  The sports coat is going to look out of place.  So ultimately, the rule of the audience prevails – you have to dress in relation to them.  But not exactly like them.

And good luck.

73 Comments

  1. Love the idea of 3 levels of attire – and I’m wondering if I’ve ever listened to a talk by a hit man. Certainly there have been some presentations by people of dubious character!

      1. Thanks, Anna — my guess is that the news programs are terrified that you’ll click elsewhere, and so use any means, even potentially demeaning ones, to keep the viewer watching.

        1. Where l live (Maine) we dress for the weather, not to impress. Remember the advice for a nervous speaker was to imagine the audience is naked. I imagine that the speaker is naked. I’m only interested in the message not how the messenger is dressed.

          1. Thanks for your comment. Shouldn’t you allow the audience to dress for the weather too? I’ve never found that advice (for a nervous speaker) to be helpful. It’s too much work, and it distracts from the real focus of the speech, which is bringing a message across to an (appropriately clothed) audience in order to change the world. The further point here is that what the study found was the unconscious biases created by clothing, not the conscious effort of paying attention to a message.

  2. As always, fantastic Nick! As you know, my challenge is if and when to ever where my elegant Aikido martial arts uniform in front of the audience. Well, over the last few years, the question has been answered for me: The right audience actually DEMANDS it. Example one: Spoke in front of Merrill Lynch top 1% financial planners meeting and they not only “demanded” I wear the uniform, but they also wanted to get up and move around to reinforce the keynote takeaway lessons. Also, this Friday flying to SFO to deliver a speech to a very savvy, creative ad agency who also wants the speech done in the uniform and with a lot of interactive moving of the audience. Thank you for sharing your great knowledge with us!

    1. Michael — I’m delighted to hear that you’ve taken to wearing the Aikido uniform — it’s a great illustration of the power of the tribe or expertise signal that is conveyed by the clothing. And the audience interactivity is a natural outgrowth of your message, as well (carefully)!

  3. Hey there!
    What are your thoughts on the onus being on the person who is sexualizing/ judging their speaker solely based on appearance, rather than the speaker themselves?
    If I go to a seminar where Neil deGrasse Tyson is speaking – ultimately he could come on stage wearing a string bikini and a pink feather boa – but his speech/message would remain the same. Even if I am incapable of paying attention because of his exposed skin – this feels more like a reflection of who I am, and areas I need to improve on.
    As much as I understand the importance of presenting yourself in a way that feels professional and authentic, I also understand the importance of not shaming people for having bodies, or wanting to expose them in ways that feel true to themselves.
    Why are we catering to the people who aren’t able to pay attention to someone because they can see their arms? Almost everyone on this planet has arms – it seems like teaching people how to interact with humans, some of whom have exposed arms, might be a more helpful, long-term solution, no?

    1. Hi, Rachel, thanks for your comment — of course, you’re right — it is a statement about the audience’s reaction. But successful speakers need to worry about audience reaction or they won’t be successful. And many of these sort of psychological studies that show bias of one kind or another are pointing to unconscious bias rather than something conscious. Changing unconscious bias is a long-term, difficult process and one that many careers have foundered on. Maybe you could start/continue/amplify the societal discussion that we need to have? I agree that it’s unfortunate that people are wired to respond to bare skin in the way that they do, but it’s the reality we have now. And I dare say that if Dr. Tyson showed up in a bikini, it would create a small firestorm of commentary. And not about his message, which is all about science.

  4. I am hoping you can comment on how this concept extends to the college classroom. There is research that shows female professors are rated in student evaluations lower than males of comparable skill and experience to begin with, but they are even more harshly evaluated on their appearance. The studies show that male professors who dress “down” (I.e. t-shirt, jeans, sneakers) are seen by students as “brilliant” but women who dress down are not. I opt for business casual (skirts, blouses, dress slacks, heels) even though my students NEVER come to class dressed like this. I know if I dressed like my students (yoga pants, hoodie) I would receive low evaluations from them and their unconscious bias of females as less intelligent and capable than males would only be amplified by dressing to look like them.

    1. Hi, Rebecca — this is a very complicated aspect of the overall issue of dress. As you say, the research shows bias — both from male and female students. I think we have a long way to go before we achieve equality in the academic world. It’s more than what a female (or male) professor wears; it’s also the whole set of cultural assumptions that surrounds these teachers. Students develop these biases over their twelve years of schooling before they even get to the college level, so there’s a whole set of re-educational steps that need to be taken at a variety of levels.

  5. What’s wrong with showing your skin on the arms if your are comfortable in a sleeveless dress?
    You can still speak with dignity and class in my view. We getting too politically correct and I
    suspect we will soon all in a uniform to conform.
    Bigger things in life too worry about or waste time on.
    Let’s not shame women further. …..who started this and were there complaints?

  6. It angers me when I see women on televison wearing skirts short enough to have to cross their legs. To me, that body posture conveys submissiveness and defenslessness. When added to bare arms, it detracts from credibility by placing emphasis on sex appeal. What’s so sexy about being helpless? And what does it say about the mentality of the person that finds helplessness sexually appealing? Women need to stop repressing themselves with demeaning clothing and body language.

  7. Great article and a timely reminder for me to assess my ‘wardrobe’. Over here we have a saying: ‘Horses for courses’ so understand what you’re saying. Also unconscious bias is the ‘hidden part’ of us all that can defy logic, however it is an influencer whether we ‘like it’ or ‘not!’

  8. Yes, this clothing thing can often be a brutal conundrum! Look ‘top of the line’ but not so much you’re out of touch. Stand out, but don’t distract. Look yourself, but relate to the audience. Add on to that – we as women often have a hard time finding a good place for a mic pack/lavalier. (Augh, ties are so handy for you men.) I remember you talking at the Presentation Summit this year about not wearing heels, or you might look too sexy, as it does indeed affect the way we walk… but sometimes heels are a kick-butt part of a top-of-the -line outfit. It often feels like an impossible game. So, I just try and focus on feeling AWESOME. If I feel great, the rest can often transcend. My focus then can move to connecting with my audience.

    1. Hi, Sally — exactly — you captured the difficulties perfectly. As you say, make the best choice you can and focus on feeling awesome — I love it!

  9. You are talking about sleeveless tops, hmm I ponder the thought. Some people brought up the whole outfit. Here is my take on this. Bare arms, are alright, not a bother. Dress professional, if you are a teacher and have a professional certification then be proud of of it and dress appropriately. If you are a Dr. dress the part! If you are a TV anchor dress as a professional! If you are a construction worker don’t wear a tie to work, wear your work boots and PPE.

    Let me pose this question, what about the lady TV interviewer or anchor that has bare legs?

    I might be old school, however back in the day a lady was always seen wearing stockings on her legs. Now a days, some chose not to wear them, how unfortunate as they do have some very nice fashions for ladies to wear on their legs these days. This bare legged look is very unprofessional in my opinion!

    What do your readers think on this?

    1. Graham, thanks for your comment. I think, given my track record on trying to make a simple example out of sleeveless dresses, I’d better ask for a lifeline on this one. Anyone?

  10. I am so glad someone is finally bringing this up. I often wondered why women news anchors are wearing sleeveless dresses in the mid of January when it is -30C; and the man sitting next to her has a suit. She must be cold. Many are too young to be warmed up from menopause.

  11. Great read, thank you. Loving the comments. Will weigh in with my two penneth.

    I have always gone with comfort and connection. I need to be comfortable to make a connection. If, as a speaker my clothing impacts my ability to relax, my connection and message will suffer. If my clothing creates a barrier between me and the audience, my connection and message will suffer.

    1. Hi, Aaron — thanks for your comment, and thanks for weighing in. Comfort is great — but also remember that what you wear signals meaning to the audience. So don’t maximize comfort at the expense of smart signaling. That’s why getting it right is so challenging, and why feelings run so high.

  12. “And conversely, the less clothing you have on, the dumber we’re going to take you to be.” – This is sure to be true, no doubt about it. Just imagine giving an important business speech clad in nothing but your flip flops. 😛

  13. Hi Nick,

    I found your article very right. My husband will be in a radio interview and facebook about his new position in a political party and he and me were nervous about if is better for him to wear blue suit, white shirt with violet tie or just the suit with white shirt with cufflinks. He decided the last option after reading your post.

    1. Thanks, Veronica — and I agree, probably the right choice for a political party position (without knowing the details). And good luck to him!

  14. Nick… one word was missing from this insightful post: sweat. Stage lights and a full house often create a tropical environment for speakers already fueled by that fear/flight surge of adrenaline. So a 3-piece suit can be a microwave and a sleeveless dress can reveal rivulets running down the sides. So how do you dress for success without sweating it? Also, as a Canadian (living in Japan) I was surprised by pingbacks showing how global the Kim Campbell story went.

    1. Great point, John — I’ve worked with speakers who have low sweat thresholds (technical term) and we’ve had to develop various strategies for dealing with the problem. Big armpit stains = not pretty, not handsome.

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