What To Wear As a Public Speaker: 13 Tips for Dressing So That People Will Listen

As a public speaker, your audience will decide if you are worth listening to within the first three seconds of you taking the stage. Not the first three seconds after the first word comes out of your mouth — the first three seconds of you walking on the stage.

How you look when you're giving a presentation matters — whether you like it or not, whether you think it’s fair or not, whether you think it’s sexist or intellectually stunted or unspiritual or shallow. Your personal opinion on the subject does not change how the human brain functions.

If you want people to take the content of your presentation seriously, you need to look put together and professional. Most of the tips I'm sharing here apply to women, but a few apply to men as well:

1. Get your hair professionally blown out or learn how to do it well yourself.

2. If you’re presenting with heavy stage lights or being filmed, consider professional makeup. This isn’t vain — lighting translates skin pigment differently.

3. This is one I learned from studying music growing up: if you are sitting on stage, or are sitting on a stool for a panel, the audience can see straight up your skirt if it is not just-above-the-knee-length or longer. People may be too polite to say something about it to you, but they will talk about it.

4. Pack a back-up outfit. I unfortunately learned this the hard way: I had picked up a new dress from the dry cleaner, threw it in my suitcase while still in the plastic wrap, only to discover a few hours before my presentation the next morning that the dry cleaner had shrunk it. I put it on, stood in front of the mirror and burst into tears. I looked like a sausage. With all the stores closed and no other options, I had to wear the now-too-small dress. I was mortified the entire day.

5. If your outfit or suit gets wrinkled in your luggage, have the hotel you’re staying at professionally steam or press it for you (keep costs like this in mind when you're calculating your speaking fees) or bring along a travel steamer. Hotel room irons can be sketchy.

6. Travel in something you can also speak in if your luggage gets lost (including carry on suitcases that may get gate-checked). Always carry your makeup in your personal bag. This ensures you won't be stuck giving your presentation in athleisure wear or scrambling to create an appropriate outfit from the hotel's lobby shops. As a bonus, when you dress better for flights, you get treated better by the airlines.

7. If you wear a lavaliere or countryman (headset) microphone and you're wearing a dress, try to choose a dress that has a zipper so that the mic pack can be attached to the back of your bra strap. A quick note here: you may need to give the event planner and the AV team an advanced heads up that this is how you wear your microphone. AV pros who have worked in TV will have no problem with this as it's the professional standard. AV pros who work mainly in hotels tend to be a bit squeamish with this.

8. Respect your audience and adopt a "When in Rome" mindset. If you are speaking to a more conservative group, you may want to skip a sleeveless top in favor of one with sleeves. I tend to wear longer sleeves most of the time when I speak anyway simply because I don't like how my arms look in photos. 

9. If you tend to be nervous when you speak, consider wearing high heels instead of flats for your presentation, especially if the stage has hard flooring. The sound of your heels clicking on the stage sends a subconscious signal of power to your brain, boosting your self-confidence. This self-confidence boost translates into better stage presence and a better presentation.

10. If you are wearing heels, walk the stage beforehand to see where the tape seams are or if they’ve decorated it with a type of carpeting your shoe will catch in.

11. Unless you’re speaking outside on the beach, flip-flops are not appropriate.

12. Your clothes don't need to be expensive, but they do need to fit you. Have them tailored if necessary or consider Rent the Runway if the number on the scale and the size on the tags of the business outfits hanging in your closet are currently in a fight. (Definitely speaking from experience on this one.)

13. No chipped manicures. It doesn't matter if you DIY'd your nail polish or had it professionally done, just make sure your nails look tidy. (Sylvia Weinstock explains her take on this here, in the way only she can.)

Originally published January 2015