Appearance matters. We all know this. Heck, we don't seek out ugly people to date, right? Your clothing and overall appearance are part of your message. The wrong clothing, accessory, or hairstyle choice can create a distraction that speaks louder than your words and, fairly or unfairly, turn people off.
It is hard to generalize about the perfect clothing for your speaking engagement because each speaker, occasion, and audience are unique. So ultimately only you can decide what will work for you. But what follows may help you in that decision making process.
One big rule is to avoid distracting clothing or accessory choices. The best choices are generally conservative and nondescript. When all is said and done I want the audience to remember your message, not your outfit. So this is not the time to be a fashion trend-setter.
Those beautiful jingly earrings are so beautiful that audience members may spend half your talk thinking about them--and not focusing on what you are saying. Leave them home.
Certainly if there is an unofficial "uniform" that your audience will be wearing--as is the case in much of corporate America--you probably want to be mindful of that and not stray too far from the norm (unless you are purposefully presenting yourself as an "outsider", which might free you up to break the sartorial rules).
Of course if you happen to be speaking on Dress Down Day, you might vary that strategy. However be careful there too.If your short sleeves reveal tattoos, keep the sleeves...lest we spend your talk enjoying the beautiful artwork rather than your message.
And while I shy away from giving woman fashion advice--I'm just not qualified to speak on the subject!--I heard a good rule of thumb recently that I liked. My colleague Ms. Joan Ali Scocco shared that woman "do not have the right to bare arms". The play on words suggests a radical second amendment position, but is simply good advice. As she suggests to her female students, put on a blazer and you will look "professional". Of course it is important that the blazer isn't over a "Top Ten Thinks I Did in Cancun" tee shirt, but for the most part regardless of what is under the blazer, it will work nicely.
And while on the subject of women's attire, I think it is worth saying that the presentation occasion is not a date. When I tell my college students to "dress professionally" I am often surprised about what young woman consider "professional". Very often I see outfits more suitable for the night club than the board room. Mini skirts, plunging necklines and stiletto heels will create quite an impression, but is that really the impression you want to make?
As for men, I think the choices are easier. A business suit is a business suit. But not all occasions call for a suit. Sometimes you are addressing the cub scouts or a crowd at a rock concert.
I have a simple rule of thumb that I am comfortable with in those non-business suit settings. I try to look a little better than most of my audience. If my audience is in tee shirts and sweats, I would wear a polo shirt and jeans or khakis. If they are in polo shirts, I might wear a button-down shirt. If they are in button-downs, I might put on a tie. You get the idea. This basically insures I'm not under-dressed for the occasion, but also not far too formal.
Again, each occasion is unique and you must choose for yourself what to wear. Be aware though, that our audience makes judgments about us quickly and we want those judgments to be positive ones. So make wise choices that do not detract from the presentation you have worked so hard on.
That's all for now. Be well, speak well, and as always thanks for reading!
For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting work see Semiosphere Consulting.