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  • Bruce Rule

Dress the Part to Improve Your Public Speaking

Updated: Mar 5

"Public speaking" "rule communications"
Dress for Success in Public Speaking

Your appearance plays a big part in how successful you are as an effective communicator when you are public speaking. That may sound superficial, but it is true.


Most audiences, whether they know it or not, will make snap judgments about speakers who are careless in their dress. Show up looking sloppy and disheveled and they will discount what you have to say. (And, yes, I know on the old “Columbo” TV series Peter Falk got away with dressing poorly to fool the murderer, but you are not a TV detective and this is real life.)  Show up for a black-tie event in a casual button-down and blue jeans and you may not even get in.


This also is true if you are attending a webinar or conference call. During the pandemic, when work-at-home became prevalent, many people went casual. Let them. You should continue to dress appropriately or you risk being seen as disrespectful.


Here’s an example of what I mean. A few years back, a CEO asked me to join a Zoom call where she would be pitching her company to a potential client. If she landed the contract, I would handle some of the editorial work as a sub-contractor. She also invited a number of other people from her company to be on the call to answer any questions the potential client might have.


The call started and the potential client was dressed in a very conservative business suit that would be appropriate for a corporate board meeting. Her home office (this was during the pandemic) was immaculate and looked like it had been transported from her company’s headquarters. The CEO also looked fine. I wore a suit and tie, and the other members of her team dressed as if they were in the office.


Except one. The CEO’s lawyer, who would be handling a good bit of the work if we landed the contract, hopped on in shorts and a T-shirt that advertised a local bar or restaurant. I couldn’t tell which, but it didn’t matter. It looked very unprofessional and inappropriate when discussing a contract that would have been worth tens of thousands of dollars for us.


We didn’t land the contract. I was never told why, but I am sure that the lawyer’s appearance didn’t help.  


Go With the Traditional


Dress for the level of your audience, or one step above. If you know it is a casual business meeting with co-workers, dress as you usually do in the office. If you are speaking at a gathering and you don’t know what attire would be appropriate, reach out to the moderator or arranger of the event and ask. Experienced moderators would welcome the question, as they want you to do well.


If you don’t know and can’t find out ahead of time, keep it simple. Men can rarely go wrong with a blue suit, white shirt and tie. Women have more options, but a conservative business look can carry the day almost anywhere. Don’t forget your shoes should be clean and polished. The idea is that you want the audience to pay attention to you and what you are saying, not to your clothes.


One side note: If you are in a profession where you have a formal uniform (military, firefighter, etc.) and you are speaking about a topic related to your work, wearing the uniform is acceptable. The same with an informal uniform. If you are lab scientist discussing your work, a lab coat might be appropriate. A nurse could wear her work clothes when giving a speech about emergency room procedures. Wearing such clothes may even be advisable, as they lend credibility and authority to you when you speak.


No Flashy Jewelry


Unless you are a jewelry designer or an entertainer whose image includes large rings and necklaces, it is best not to keep things as simple as possible. Of course, wear your wedding band and engagement ring. Most rings in fact are not distracting.


But be aware that shiny necklaces and bracelets may reflect light when you are on stage, which can be distracting. If you are on a call and there is a chance that your bracelet or necklace may make noise, say from hitting the microphone or desk, take them off.


I always advise taking everything out of your pockets before hitting the stage if you are speaking in person. That way there are no unsightly bulges. I can almost guarantee that if you leave a few pennies in your pocket you will be tempted to reach in and jingle them nervously at least once. So remove the temptation.


I also don’t advise wearing a watch. You may be tempted to peek at the time, which can be seen as disrespectful. Back in 1992, President George H.W. Bush was soundly — and rightly — criticized for checking his watch during one of the presidential debates when running for re-election. It looked like he couldn’t wait for the debate to be over with. I’m not saying that was the reason he lost the election, but it certainly didn’t help his cause.


Clean and Fresh  


Keep in mind that whatever you wear, it should be clean and fresh.Whenever I was scheduled to speak at night and I had time to stop home first, I would change into a fresh set of clothes. Clean shirt, pants, even underwear and socks. It helped me make a good impression when I showed up at the event, especially in comparison to those who were wearing the same clothes they had on for the morning commute. Making a good impression helps with likeability, which I have mentioned before can be a key factor in how effective a communicator you are.


Some people in high places go even further. U.S. President John F. Kennedy was known to wear three or four suits every day, according to the White House Historical Association. Style was a big part of his effectiveness as president, and he knew the public expected him to look sharp.

There’s another reason to change into fresh clothes before a presentation, if you can. You’ll feel fresher, and that will help your confidence. I know it helps mine.


And anything that boosts your confidence will help your public speaking.


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