There are some things to consider when dressing for success when public speaking because it’s not easy to please everyone. However, if you’ve done your research by asking the appropriate questions, you can avoid some clothing taboos. For example, shirts that have sayings on them, particularly if the saying is potentially offensive to any member of your audience. Some things to consider are:
Wearing uncomfortable clothing or shoes will negatively impact your energy level and speech delivery. It’s impossible to be present with the audience when you’re giving a speech if you’re in any discomfort, and if you are not comfortable, you will not give your best performance. This is especially important if you deliver a long keynote speech or present an all-day course or workshop.
Plan for mishaps
While we never anticipate a wardrobe malfunction, there are times when you will be caught out. I don’t think that Katherine Hegel expected her dress came apart when giving her thank you speech at the ShoWest Awards in Las Vegas. A few ways to guard against these adverse events include:
- Take a second outfit, particularly if you are travelling or if the presentation is crucial to the client (most are). You’ll want that insurance in case something happens (e.g. an untimely spill) before your presentation.
- Be careful with what you eat or drink before your presentation. Eating a messy hot dog with lots of mustard and tomato sauce might not be the best idea.
- Wearing clothes that are too tight could be asking for trouble too. Public speaking is a physical activity where you’re also conveying your message using gestures. You don’t want a button to pop off or a seam to tear as you’re moving around.
- Equally, you might wish to avoid clothing that’s too loose or accessories that can get caught in odd places, like on a lectern.
Nevertheless, what if, despite your best efforts, a clothing malfunction happens anyway? Try to fix it discretely if you can. Occasionally, you’ll be the last person in the room to notice. When that happens, laugh it off and get back to delivering your speech.
You want the audience to pay attention to you when you’re speaking and not the sound of your keys or coins in your pocket. You don’t want them to focus on your jangly jewellery, your noisy shoes, and, more importantly, any overly strong colours with overbearing patterns. Unless you’re deliberately aiming to distract the audience from your message, ensure you consider hemlines, necklines, blouse sheerness and well-fitting outfits. You want all eyes to be on you and the focus on your message. Don’t give your audience anything else to get distracted by.
Looking good, feeling good
When you speak in public, ensure you look well-groomed, professional, and stylish. Ensure your clothes fit you well and are neither too tight, too short, or too long unless they are part of the message of your speech. Remember, when you look good, you feel good, which will automatically boost your performance when you speak in public.
Know your audience
Finding out about your audience by asking questions will help you better understand who will be listening to you. Your enquiries also make it easier to choose what to wear and which colours would best match your outfit. Therefore, before you accept an invitation to speak, ask the following questions:
- What are the date, time, venue, and name of the event? (Your audience will be in a very different mood at 10:30 am than at 4:30 pm).
- What do you want me to talk about?
- How long do you want the speech to be? (20, 30, 40 minutes or longer).
- What would you like my speech to achieve?
- Are there other speakers at the event, and if so, where in the order will I be speaking? (If other public speakers are presenting at the function, ask if any of them will be giving a speech on the same topic – you don’t want the audience to feel like they’re being bombarded).
- Can you send me an agenda or describe the event?
- Who will introduce me, and may I send a bio to use for my introduction?
- If I need more information, who should I contact? (This is essential for all bookings).
- Approximately how many people will be there?
- What can you tell me about them? (Age, background, gender, occupation, whatever you think makes a difference).
- What is their attitude toward my topic? (Do they support my idea or not?).
- Will they be able to ask questions?
- Will I be expected to mingle and socialise with them before or after I speak?
- Will there be a podium/lectern? (Solid or transparent?).
- Will there be a screen and projector? (Should you want to use slides).
- Will I have a microphone? (What kind? Lapel; hand-held; ear; podium).
- May I arrive early to walk the stage and get comfortable with the equipment?
- Who is in charge of making sure things go smoothly before and during my speech? (This is essential for all bookings).
As a public speaker, you never just speak; you’re always speaking to someone about something. Therefore, the answers you receive to these questions will help you write the best possible speech you can.
Samantha Richards is a Public Speaking and Communications Consultant and founder of ‘Building Voices Communication’. She is an award-winning public speaker who is the top female public speaking coach in Australia (Yahoo Finance). She is currently studying for a Diploma in Counselling and is passionate about helping others communicate confidently.