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.