What To Wear: On Speaking Engagements – 8 Tips To Show That You Mean Business

March 23, 2010

What To Wear: On Speaking Engagements

Yves Saint Laurent – S10 – Style

“And, next, let us please welcome…”. That’s you! You have just been introduced to the audience. You are feeling confident. All eyes are on you. And then suddenly you think to yourself, “Oh gosh, I sure hope I look OK.”. Does this sound familiar? It is imperative that we maintain our confidence while pursuing our professional endeavors, especially when all eyes are on us. It is necessary, especially in today’s work environment, to pay attention to both the content and the visual representation of that content in all of your marketing tools. When you are speaking in front of an audience, your personal presentation is clearly a marketing tool. And it needs to accurately and instantly represent and reinforce your message.

Whether you are a corporate professional or an entrepreneur, the business world is jam packed these days with opportunities to showcase your expertise in group settings. It is a great way to get your name out there and share your knowledge. The success of the live appearance gig may lead to new contacts, new projects and more personal wealth. Quality content shared in a memorable way is vital. And just like the other marketing tools you utilize (ie. business cards, pamphlets, websites, etc.), content is not the only key to their success. The visual does play a role. Looking like a dynamic professional is relevant too. The ultimate goal is to feel so authentically confident with your personal presentation that you are able to forget about yourself and fully engage in the more critical tasks at hand. There are lots of nuances to dressing for success in a public forum, but here are 8 key areas to help you get started and be well prepared for your next live appearance and to look as confident as you feel:


As a fashion consultant evaluating your best style options for your speaking engagement, I would first ask you to state your professional role. What is your field of expertise? What role do you have in this field and/or at the company? This way we can get an idea of the fundamentals for an appropriate outfit for you. For instance, is a suit a requirement for the job? Next, I would ask that you share with me your responsibilities at the speaking engagement. Are you the main attraction? Are you the host? Are you on a panel, etc.? This information is helpful for us to determine if there are other limitations so, that we can work around them and still put together a successful outfit. Once we get clear on the role that you have as a professional in this particular circumstance, we then have a better grasp of any outfit limitations, so that the business message you are promoting is appropriately displayed. Note that out-dated clothes send a message to the audience that your content and business philosophies may be out-dated as well! And ill-fitting clothes instantly send a message to the audience that you may not be reliably attentive to their professional needs or be able to tend to the details of their projects if you can’t attend to the important details of your own professional dress. So, effectively and accurately showcasing your role and responsibilities via your personal presentation is essential.


The next step to dressing appropriately for your engagement is to get a general understanding of the audience. Are they in the same field as you? If not, what types of professions do they pursue? This information will not only be helpful to the content you present at the event, but guide you in dressing appropriately to maintain the group’s attention. Another important detail is the general size of this group. For instance, a large audience needs to be able to see you from the back row.

Remember, when you are speaking in front of an audience, it is your responsibility to inform and to entertain them. Visuals play a vital role!


Determine some specifics about the event and assess how they will directly affect what you choose to wear. What is the set-up? Will you be speaking to the audience from a stage? Behind a podium? Sitting down? Behind a desk/table? Will there be a live video feed/screen? Is a microphone required? If so, will it be hand held, blue-tooth, or a clip on? As an example, when you are required to sit on a chair in-between other panel members in front of the audience, it would be important to make sure that you cannot see your Spanx undergarments when you cross your legs. Or, when the event requires that you wear a bulky battery pack make sure that the tech person has easy access or that your top isn’t a non-stretch cotton material. These questions and more should get you started thinking about the way in which you will move and be seen in front of the live audience. Answers to logistical constraints can help you hone in on the best clothing options for you and the occasion.


Get a good sense of the surroundings for your upcoming speaking engagement. Where is it taking place? Is it in a large, cold auditorium or a small, stuffy hotel meeting room? If it’s the former, it might be best to layer your outfit or simply wear something to adequately support your body temperature under those specific conditions. Find out what will be the background while you speak? A large logo banner? Or bland solid curtains? What about a busy photo montage? The odds are in your favor of successfully getting your business message across to the audience when you and what you are saying stands out against any other visuals that are near you while you speak.


In addition to your outfit portraying a current, modern and appropriate professional image, it is crucial to create a flattering silhouette while speaking in front of a live audience. The most effective way for women of all body types to do this is to accentuate or create a waist. When we highlight the natural feminine curves of our bodies, we are able to stand up against the other competing visual elements (ie. busy or bland backgrounds, other panel members, etc.) near us. Consequently, both a large or small audience will be able to clearly see you. A shift dress would not be a good idea for a presentation. There are a multitude of options in both clothes and accessories to help us define our waists. Find those pieces of clothing that have seaming, stitching or piping details along the waist. Look for tops and dresses that have attached bands, ties or bows to again help us outline a waist. And, of course, belts! This has been a really hot accessory over the last few years and continues to be a savior for those wishing to emphasize a waist or need help defining a waist. In either case, a belt helps us to noticeably create a flattering silhouette near or far.

Another area on the body that is important to play up when you are speaking in front of an audience is the neck region. It is flattering to your overall silhouette when you give the impression of a long neck. A top or dress with a wide u-neckline or v-neckline is always a good choice. This neck lengthening style technique does a few different things. First, it makes you look taller. And when you look taller, you appear longer and leaner. Even if you are already tall, this practice is still advantageous and flattering. A long neck (or the illusion of a long neck) directs attention to the face, and attention to the face means attention to the fact that the person is speaking. This is especially important for those audience members that must view you from afar, but also for those that have an up-close and personal vantage point. Both techniques of creating a waist and a long neck help to keep the attention on you and away from other visuals while you are speaking.


Color is so much more important that we realize. It can actually affect the moods of others. It is beneficial to set a positive tone for your audience and this can be done instantly with the color(s) you choose to wear in your outfit. Rich, lush and vibrant colors work best for professional speaking engagements. Blues and greens are always a hit. Plus, these energetic colors will emphasize and bring forth the passion and enthusiasm you hold for the content of your message.

Dynamic colors will be inviting to your audience. I am not suggesting that you wear loud neon colors but, rather those colors that are flattering on your skin tone in a more bold tone than you might regularly wear. This way you will be appropriately noticeable in the crowd. When we wear dark colors to a speaking engagement we run the risk of looking like a dark blob to the audience. This is especially evident to a large group who must view us from a distance. If you often wear dark colors because you think they make you appear slimmer, this is a myth! The fit, silhouette, and proportions you create within an outfit are really the true determining factors. More lively colors will still be flattering and add oomph to your live appearance success.


It is really important that you feel as good as you look when you are speaking in front of a group. When we are physically comfortable, we feel more confident. For instance, I have found that when I am not wearing a comfortable pair of shoes, the physical discomfort holds me back from fully engaging my subject matter or my audience. The discomfort distracts my attention. Consequently, I only wear shoes that I feel physically and stylistically good in because the distraction is not worth the risk.

Another comfort issue may be an unconscious one: a woman may feel comfortable, but from the audience’s perspective, she actually looks like she is not comfortable! The presenter’s skirt may be too tight or too short and, as a result, she is incessantly tugging or pulling on it – not even aware of her behavior. The fact that the skirt is ill-fitting is a visual distraction all by itself. And then, the constant maneuvering she does with the skirt is another distraction for the audience. This combo is a double whammy!

For professionals, the fewer visual distractions you offer your audience, the more likely they are to pay attention to the content you share. Some additional visual distractions include loose buttons and threads, visible undergarments, wrinkle-prone fabrics, noisy shoes when you have to walk throughout the presentation and, undoubtedly, noisy jewelry (especially when you have to use/wear a microphone). So, remember, it is equally important to feel comfortable and look comfortable and confident when you are speaking in front of an audience.


One final note is to remember to have fun with your attire when you are making a live appearance. It is so important! Be authentic…be business appropriate…be comfortable, but also be a little more daring and go outside of your comfort zone. I promise the audience can handle it! To omit this style element would be a disservice to you and to your audience. Looking your best is such a fast and effective way to set the tone for an event and it begins even before you speak your first words.

When you look good and you are assured in that fact, you will be able to enthusiastically and confidently share your expertise. This excitement and confidence will transmit to your audience. They are then more receptive and supportive and actually feel invited to be a part of your message.

Let’s say, you are speaking at an event where the audience is full of high-tech industry insiders and they all work in casual environments and both men and women work in blue jeans. Do you really think they will be entertained, if in an effort to ‘fit in,’ you are wearing jeans too? I can assure you they will not. Although they may not always express these style interests with their own outfits, this group does wish to be visually captivated too. Remember you are up there presenting in front of them to inform and to entertain them. Quality content, effective communication skills, and pleasing visuals all play a role in the success of today’s speakers.

So, whether you are the host, the guest star, or on a panel, it is extremely relevant as a business professional to succinctly and effectively reinforce your business message to your audience with your personal presentation. When you wear an outfit that is appropriate, flattering, and comfortable, your appearance and your resulting self-confidence resonates with your audience. What you wear in the marketplace is another marketing tool to be used to its best advantage at all times including live speaking engagements. Make an informed decision regarding visual presentation and then fully commit. This will put a confident smile on your face and translate entertainingly well to your audience.

For a more complete evaluation before your next speaking engagement, don’t hesitate to click on my Virtual Styling Service. I would be delighted to help you as one of my favorite focuses and my expertise that I find most fun is how to best dress for presentations, whether live, television, or videos.

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  • Excellent post! I have developed content for many corporate meetings and have seen women make some unfortunate mistakes when dressing for the platform. More and more, dressing for the speaker’s platform means dressing for the camera that beams your image on a huge screen. And unfortunately, it is not always possible to know in advance where the camera will be placed. If you are on a panel, expect that the camera may be placed in a way that shows your legs and feet (or more) on the big screen. So wear pants, wear tights, wear a long-ish skirt or have great legs. And change from your comfy trade-floor shoes to your flattering high heels before the panel. If possible, test the chair before the session to make sure it is adjusted so that you are able to be seated comfortably and in a manner that shows your best face (and legs and feet) to the camera. If the chair doesn’t work for you, ask for a pillow on the chair, ask for a different chair, ask to be seated at the end so the camera doesn’t look up your skirt, or change your outfit.
    If you are a solo presenter, be aware that the camera picks up and exaggerates everything. At a conference recently, a female speaker wore a beautiful front-buttoned tailored shirt. It gapped slightly in a way that was barely noticeable when standing front of her. But when she stood at the podium, the camera picked it up and the slight gap in the shirt was a major distraction to her message.

  • Anonymous

    Thank YOU so much! I needed to look at this again for my lil chat at TEDxDubai! Since it’s somewhat I a casual event and I am leading an activity where I might get a lil dirty.  I might go with jeans, but dress them up with a hermes scarf, and a classic white shirt and amazing Chanel oxfords.  I will not let you down, I promise.  

  • Corporate Fashionista

    Go get’em girl!

  • Corporate Fashionista

    Great question! There are lots of factors to consider. My top three general style tips for guys on what to wear for speaking engagements are:

    1) Consider your audience. Who’s your audience? Do they wear suits, khaki’s or jeans? Age range? Predominately, men or women? Wear the most sophisticated version in the appropriate category…corporate, creative, casual.

    2) Find the perfect fit. Fit is crucial. Pay special attention to shoulder seams, arm length and circumference, neck collar, pant inseam and length. Clothes that are too loose or too tight will make you appear sloppy. Invest in contemporary, fitted, tailored garments. Get alterations done as necessary.

    3) Wear dress shirts in colors other than solid white or very dark tones. Your audience needs to be able to see you clearly from a distance, as well as, up-close and on screen. Opt for a masculine, complimentary shade of lavender, apple green or sky blue. Go for moderate patterned dress shirts too (ie. small checks, narrow stripes, etcetera). In most cases, I prefer non-buttoned-down collars too.

    These three tips are just the starting point, but should jumpstart you in the right direction!

  • This is the first post that aligns what I’ve been thinking for a long time- but always felt heavy pressure from other ‘stylist’s to be ‘their’ style, not authentic to who I am. Appreciate your sharing!