Dress for success


Lisa from Speak Schmeak had an interesting post yesterday on physical comfort and dressing for public speaking.

Lisa talks about dressing appropriately. That pretty much says it all. She also talks about shoes :)

When dressing for public speaking, usually other things matter than when you are dressing for a night out.

This is especially true when it comes to shoes. You need to be well balanced in order to give a good talk. And some shoes simply work better than others.

You may think you are cool and comfortable on high heels, but they stress your muscles and knee caps and that stress moves all the way through your body until it reaches your vocal cords. Wearing the wrong shoes may result in that high pitched, tense, stressed voice we all feel so uncomfortable with.

Being comfortable is important. For both you and your audience.

High heels were made for sitting (or lying down), not for giving speeches. Apart from Oscar acceptance speeches, maybe, and they usually don’t impress me much.

A small heel or slightly raised sole is better than an all flat pair of ballerinas. I also firmly believe Audrey Hepburn was the only woman ever who could wear ballerinas without walking like a duck.

So dressing for success is less about what is comfortable or not for you but about what may stand in the way between you and your audience. Not everybody is comfortable looking at your underpants’ waistband. And no matter how great your legs may look: they will always stand between you and and what you have to say. Unless you are talking about legs, of course.


Clothing is about respect.

Wearing a pin stripe business suit while preparing a group of unemployed 50somethings for an uncertain future shows how little you really understand their circumstances.
Clothing is about good manners.

Irritation is a great tool to spark a discussion, so irritate others as much as you want, but learn how to live with the consequences. There is no need to dress like an istockphoto.com model, but you may want to take off your mirrored sunglasses while you’re talking.

Clothing is posture.

Find something that is you, but that is also appropriate for the situation. Don’t be sloppy. Sloppiness is for being alone at home, with a cup of tea, on the couch, with the cats, and even then it may make you feel miserable. Sloppy clothes make your body slouch. Don’t slouch.

(In 1983, Cynthia Heimel gave golden advice on how to speed up getting into a tantrum: Don’t brush your teeth and wear your pajamas until 2 pm. I once tried it. It worked.)

Clothing is a statement. Clothing has a voice.

You don’t want your clothes to scream. But you don’t want them to whisper either.

Clothing, like make-up, can enhance your strong features or cover you up completely, and turn you a very light shade of grey or sepia. There are clothes that help or hinder a talk. Some clothes make you almost invisible, while large, dangling earrrings and noisy bracelets may be louder than you think. Literally.

Clothes are second skin.


Girlie tops with overlong sleeves invite nervous female speakers to »crawl« inside. Add a phrase like »I want to tell you a little bit about..« and you’ve got a walking cliché of insecurity.

Long or thick scarves take away from your silhouette and may muffle your voice: Little Ms I’m-not-really-here.

Do not wear an out-door jacket that looks as if you are only visiting. One of my students did that once. It was the first thing the group commented on: »You looked as if you did not want to be here.« And they were right. Body talk. Our clothing is part of that.

So go get video feedback. And someone to talk you through the video. Get someone to help you translate what you see. Look into a mirror. Talk to the mirror. Look again.

Clothes are memories.

When I put on my »school« blazer in the morning (and yes, it is a comfortable one, two, three), I put on an attitude as well. I put on my trainer/speaker me, which happens to be my most comfortable me, because it knows what it is doing.

With it, I put on trust that things will work well, because they worked well before when I was wearing that same blazer. I still own the old blue one with padded shoulders that landed me my current job at college, back in 1992. Clothes are stories from our past. Clothes are memories. Clothes can be an anchor that does not weigh you down. A piece of clothing can be your personal invisible lucky charm or a destroyer of talks.

Sometimes, clothes don’t matter.

And as so often, if the talk is great, nothing else matters but your talk.

So why should you care?

Because the more your clothing gets in the way of your message, the more effort you have to make to reach your audience.

Clothing only matters if you let it.

Do you remember Barry Schwartz, 2005, in socks and shorts? And how people talked about his appearance? They talked much more about the content of his TED talk, though.

That’s what counts.