When I work with my clients, there is a list of priorities to manage. As we’re wrapping things up, nearly every client, regardless of gender, solo presenter, or team presentation, asks the same questions, “What do I wear to my presentation?”
I’m not a fashion expert, so usually I’m just the voice of reason or a sounding board. However, over the years, I’ve been asked this numerous times, and it always makes me laugh a bit.
A few rules about what to wear for my presentation:
1. Always dress as well as or slightly better than the audience.
I recommend presenters be one subtle step above the audience. If the audience is in casual attire, then I recommend business casual. If the audience is in business casual, then I recommend semi-formal (also known as business formal). If your audience is in business formal, then you also need to be in business formal, but there is no room for error.
If your attire is too far ahead of the audience, you will appear stuffy, and your audience will not relate to you. If your attire is beneath the level of the audience, you’ll appear like a buffoon and won’t be taken seriously, or you’ll have to work significantly harder to change that their perception.
To set the right first impression, you want to dress as well as the audience, or slightly better, but I emphasize slightly. The adage to dress for the job you want, not the one you have, also fits for presentations too.
2. Dress consistently with your brand.
I have actually seen this mistake more than I care to admit. It happens because professionals want to dress in a way that isn’t consistent with the rest of the industry. Think a suit and tie at a construction industry event.
This one is tricky, because there are times when it feels like the situation calls for a the suit and tie, but if that’s what you choose to wear, business formal wear conflicts with the industry you are in or the company you represent. If you usually wear the company polo, you could feel self-conscious all of a sudden wearing the suit. That inconsistency could cost you during the presentation if you doubt yourself, trying to be something you are not. It would also look funny for a plumber to wear a suit to explain how to fix a broken pipe. You might think I’m making up extreme examples, but I’m not. When people get nervous, they over compensate.
You should dress to mirror your brand, or embody it. Whatever your industry requires is what you should choose as a baseline. You want to look the part while also feeling comfortable wearing something that is normal.
3. Dress to feel like a million dollars.
Whatever “costume” you end up with, you should think about how it makes you feel. I wouldn’t get too caught up in the thought of a power suit because power poses will do you better.
If you feel great in a specific outfit, then you should consider wearing that because if you feel confident. That inner confidence will spill over into your presentation and your persona, and you will present better. I have a female client that always wears her red “power” suit because it makes her feel strong and, in her mind, she can win that bid presentation. Another client, a male presenter, tends to wear purple because it is different and he gets lots of compliments on it.
4. Dress in something that moves.
It’s a requirement to move as a speaker. Maybe you aren’t doing yoga, but some fashions restrict movement so severely that you’ll look ridiculous when you try to move. A coat that is too tight in the arms, a shirt that smashes a ladies chest because it’s too snug, a dress that is too tight you can’t walk, or even the amazing heels that you can’t stand in for more than 15 minutes are all poor choices to wear for a presentation. For gentlemen, those pants that are squeezing your gut and high water ankles won’t work either.
Anytime you feel like a sausage trying to squeeze into your clothes, or like a kid after a growth spurt, you should rethink it at least for this event. Clothing sizes are just a number that doesn’t matter. If you are otherwise comfortable with your body, then your clothes should reflect that too!
5. Dress like a grown up.
Your attire needs to be appropriate to your age and style. It’s blatantly obvious and distracting to dress according to the regulations set for teens and college graduates.
What works for one age group, doesn’t work for all! If you’re under 30, don’t dress like your grandparents and if you’re over 50, stay away from those skinny jeans and other teenage fads. Act and dress your age.
Sometimes props aren’t just the items that you use during a presentation. In this case, a prop can be that one (appropriate) accessory you wear, or the slight change can you make just before or during your presentation, that will allow you to stand out from the crowd. Maybe a Superman t-shirt under your dress shirt? Only if it is fitting with you and your theme.
This accessory can also reflect your outgoing personality when you are stuck inside the rules. Your outfit should not be described as Avant-garde, but a nice (small) statement piece can tie your personality together with attire that is appropriate.
Let’s Set the Basics for Presentation Attire
1) Business Formal (Semi-Formal) – This is your top-of-the-line outfit, the one that you perhaps lusted over and struggled to afford. It should be appropriate for meetings with executives, top-scale business events and galas, and conversations with really important people. It’s probably an extremely nice suit, maybe even a tuxedo for men and a cocktail dress for ladies if after hours, but if it’s not, it should at least look expensive.
2) Traditional Business Casual – This outfit will probably be the category of clothes that you use primarily for work and many speeches and conferences. It is a category that is appropriate with audiences that will be dressed in a variety of styles, with an emphasis on the casual and comfortable. Think of sport coats, button front dress shirts, and really nice jeans or slacks for the men — tie option. For women, you’re looking at dresses that are appropriate for the office, business suits, and skirts or slacks paired with a conservative blouse.
3) Casual Attire – This category is taking over the world like a plague as people begin putting more emphasis on other things and away from their appearance. Even once formal business meetings are now morphing into casual when it comes to the dress code.
I lump the industries that require company polos and tattered trousers into this category as well as those that attempt to arrive to work in pajamas.
If you attempt to show up to an audience in the casual category and you are dressed in business formal, you will end up working twice as hard to establish a conversation with the listeners than if you were in the same category. The same happens when you are dressed below the category.
Attire is different for each person, so it’s difficult to say exactly what you should wear. I can only attempt to establish these rules, and it is your personal judgment on what category the clothing pieces fall into. Fashion is subjective! The key point is to make sure that the clothing fits well and is presentable (clean and free of wrinkles and pet hair).
One way to avoid being over or under dressed is to ask the person coordinating the event. If it’s not a situation you are familiar with, having this information will allow you to begin thinking about what category of clothes to pull from and could be helpful in figuring out what you are going to wear. The last thing you would want is to have the jacket or dress you needed still at the dry cleaner, and you are left scrambling at the last minute. Don’t let your attire add unnecessary anxiety to your presentation.
Since we are talking about attire at this point, if you will be presenting with a prop, or in a piece of clothing that you aren’t used to, you need to practice with it. Within three days, you’ll be presenting for real, and you need a dress rehearsal. I always recommend dress rehearsals, but if you are not used to something, then it is necessary.
One other thing on attire that you might want to consider is your part at the event. If you are sitting on a panel for example at a table on the stage, you might think about how your attire fits while seated and what that looks like from the seats on the main floor looking up. Guys need to wear nice socks under their slacks and, ladies, no mini skirts. (I know, I shouldn’t have to say that.)
This last thought also pairs with how you sit in the chair. It might not be the best choice for gentlemen to sit with legs spread wide apart, and ladies it might not be a wise choice to sit cross-legged. Keep an eye on your audience’s reactions because they will silently tell you if you did anything out of bounds.
It might be best to go through your wardrobe and group all of the optional outfits or pieces into three basic categories. It might even be helpful to look into a wardrobe app like Style Book to assist with this process.
If you are still struggling, I’ve put together a checklist of what to “Wear for My Presentation”:
- Do I have a complete outfit for the event?
- Is my outfit of choice compatible with the event where I’ll be speaking?
- Is this outfit compatible with my industry and company/personal brand?
- Are my clothes appropriate?
- Do my clothes fit well?
- Are my clothes clean and pressed?
- Is my outfit free of pet hair and dandruff?
- Do I feel comfortable wearing this outfit?
- Am I able to move around including arms while setting up?
- Am I wearing something that I am not used to wearing that I need a dress rehearsal?
- Are my clothes a distraction to those looking at me?
It is in a person’s nature to judge quickly, within the first few seconds, assumptions have been made. Your attire is the first point of contact when meeting others, even before you say “hello”. Research is conflicting, but some business journals report that it takes at least 20 good impressions to overcome a bad first impression. Don’t set yourself up for failure with poor choices for your attire.
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