Eddie's Five Commandments on Dressing for Public Speaking Engagements

Dressing for Public Speaking

So, you’ve accepted an invitation to speak at an event. If you are like most human beings, and can already feel the ants crawling down your, you know, at the mere thought of it, my sincere condolences. According to research, many of us fear engaging an audience more than we fear meeting our maker.

Not even media and communications professionals are immune to it. I still remember how back in graduate school, some people in our group would get uncontrollable hand tremors before going out to speak in front of a class; some would go up on stage and absolutely rock it, but have their whole body covered in hives when they stepped down; one person ran out of the room in tears because their speech got rescheduled.

At the end of it, though, we were all, more or less, stellar speakers. They taught us tips and tricks and techniques for dealing with the stress, staying on message, and managing the audience (no, this is not one of those posts where I tell you to imagine your listeners are naked – results tend to vary greatly with that one). Yet the most important lesson that stuck with me until this day, and which I now repeat to my students: do not cause yourself extra stress by not being comfortable. 

"The most important lesson that stuck with me until this day, and which I now repeat to my students: do not cause yourself extra stress by not being comfortable."

Thus, the following Five Commandments focus primarily on the comfort of the speaker. (Yes, comfort of the speaker, you heard right. Maybe you’ve never thought of it this way, but you actually can feel more comfortable in front of an audience). They also touch on other important aspects of effective speaking, such as your credibility and command of the audience. Ready to shake some of the nervous off - or at least start by solving the eternal WTF am I going to wear problem? Let’s build up your confidence, from the ground up: 

1. Shoes.

The most important asset of every great speaker. The previous comment about building confidence form the ground up was not accidental: how your audience perceives you has much more to do with your non-verbal cues than the actual lines of your speech, and a good, stable posture is key. You want to have your feet planted firmly on the ground, with your weight distributed evenly – not an easy task if you are wearing 5 inch heels. Another good reason to opt for flats is comfort. With big events, you never know how long you will be walking or standing, and even if you get a chance to sit down, kicking off your pumps is a big no-no.

The comfortable shoes commandment also applies to gentlemen, of course. A public speaking engagement is not the most fortunate moment to break in your new pair of wingtips. You really want to concentrate on your talking points, and not the fact your feet are killing you. Opt for something known and reliable instead. And avoid slippery leather soles. Slipping and falling on stage is probably one of the few nervous speakers’ nightmares that are based on some real-life incidents.

2. Pants.

The rule of wearing pants for public speaking situations applies to both genders alike. In my day, I’ve met some proponents of wearing a short skirt “to distract them just in case I’m not making any sense”, but frankly, if that is your level of belief in yourself and what you are about to say, you should think twice about going up on stage to begin with. The reality is that you are an intelligent human being with interesting ideas (how else did you get that speaking gig?), and an unfortunate choice of bottoms is just unnecessary self-sabotage.

Going back to the point about posture, it requires a stable stance, with your feet apart at shoulder width. Ideally, your body should form a triangle, with its base firmly on the ground. (Try it when you practice your speech. In addition to looking good, this stance also has a stabilising and calming effect on the speaker). Needless to say, this posture looks slightly weird if you are wearing anything but a pair of trousers. They can be denim for less formal occasions, but they should not be too tight, cropped, flared, ripped, or embellished in any way. Opt for neutral colours and natural fabrics, such as wool, cotton, silk, and their blends. Your clothes should provide you with enough freedom of movement, and feel natural. If you cannot wear your pants without thinking about them (too tight, too loose, uncomfortable seams, scratchy inside labels) – choose another pair. And please remember to wear a good quality leather belt. Makes all the difference in the world!

Dressing for Public Speaking, Shirt and Jacket 3. Shirt & Jacket.

Regardless of what people may say, there are acceptable ways of doing this (think blouses, polo shirts, turtlenecks, etc.), and then there is the right way. The right way, of course, being a classic tailored shirt. It should be made of natural, breathable fabric, comfortable, and not splitting at the seams. If you are a nervous speaker, avoid fine, lustrous fabrics like sateen and viscose, which will show perspiration in dark patches. You know you are going to sweat, so test the shirt at home by spraying it with some water to avoid any unpleasant surprises on the event photos. Light-coloured, patterned fabrics in 100% cotton are your best friends.

"Regardless of what people may say, there are acceptable ways of doing this, and then there is the right way. The right way, of course, being a classic tailored shirt."

There are a couple of golden rules regarding tailored shirts. First, a shirt is not an undergarment in itself, so underwear is mandatory. And for women, that also means a tank top worn over a bra. A serious speaker does not expose his or her midriff while reaching to point at something on a PowerPoint slide. Second, the top button of your shirt is all that needs to be unbuttoned, if you are not wearing a tie. Stand in front of a mirror, and place two fingers under your collarbone. This is as deep as “cleavage” goes for professionals of both genders. Anything deeper should be reserved for the beach. (I already envision some Italian gentlemen reading this, tugging at their collars with a frown. You know who you are.)

Jackets and blazers are a bit tricky. If the occasion is not too formal, I prefer to skip on the blazer and speak wearing just a shirt. If, like me, you speak with your hands, and make use of your whole body to carry your point across (which a good speaker should), a structured tailored jacket can start living a life of its own, puckering and twisting into fantastical shapes. However, if you are cold, or the occasion requires it, there is really not much you can use to replace a jacket and still look sharp (no cardigans or sweater vests, unless you are reading stories to pre-schoolers!). Therefore, if you are wearing a jacket or blazer, make sure it fits like a glove. Go for soft, supple fabrics that adjust to your body movements easily, and partial or minimal lining to keep cool.

4. The little details.

Now that you are dressed and comfortable, let’s talk about how your audience sees you. People’s minds wander, and it is difficult to keep them focused. Therefore, the less distracting they find you, the more likely they are to listen to what you are saying.

"Being more colourful than your PowerPoint presentation is never a good idea."

Avoid going up on stage looking like a Christmas tree. Keep accessories and jewellery to a minimum – everything you are wearing should serve a purpose. Be especially wary of dangly earrings, chains, fringes, tassels, and anything that moves on its own whenever you turn your head or lift your arm. Moving things are incredibly distracting to people who are trying to listen. In addition, if you are nervous, you are quite likely keeping your hands occupied without noticing it. Playing with your hair, watch, bracelet, or adjusting your glasses all the time is a giveaway as much as it is a distraction. Don’t give yourself any of these little things to play with: pull your hair back into a pony tail, remove the bracelets and watches, and opt for contact lenses if you can wear them. If you don’t know where to keep your hands (definitely not in prayer position, behind your back or on your hips!), and they still need to be busy, hold a pen, remote control, or laser pointer, and use it to make your presentation more effective.

Finally, being more colourful than your PowerPoint presentation is never a good idea. This applies both to clothing and makeup. Go for a neutral, reserved, yet elegant look if you want to be taken seriously – think Angelina Jolie addressing the United Nations.

Angelina Jolie addressing the United Nations.
5. Confident smile and eye contact.

Needless to say, this is your number one weapon when it comes to confronting any audience. Although some of us come from cultures where smiling all the time (or, as they call it, for no apparent reason) is not seen as appropriate, a hint of a smile when introducing yourself and addressing an audience is a great ice-breaker. It just gives people the sense of being welcome and appreciated.

Look your audience in the eye. Explain your points to them as people, not as a faceless crowd. Talk to each one them individually. If you are nervous, pick out somebody who is responding well to what you are saying (maintaining eye contact, nodding), and talk to him or her directly – that will give you a much-needed confidence boost. You are going to rock it, and hopefully this time you will feel more comfortable doing it!

Was this helpful? Or are you one of those people who were born to be on stage? Let us know in the comments. We love reading your feedback!

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