How to dress for a presentation – Master the 4 F’s

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Goal clarification? Check. Presentation content? Check. Rehearsal? Check. Outfit? Say what? Most people giving presentations pay a lot of attention to their content. And rightly so. But they often do not recognize the impact that their physical appearance has on the success of their presentation.  Others do appreciate the value of looking the part but they are not sure exactly how to do it. They might not even be sure what the part is! In this article, I will give you four easy and practical guidelines on how to dress for a presentation. This will help you put together an effective outfit for your presentation situations. Let us begin.

This is the third article in a series on how to dress for a presentation. If you are wondering why this even matters, I recommend you read the first post. For an overview of important guidelines to consider in choosing what to wear for a presentation, read this post. Now, let’s get into the four “F”s that you can use to determine exactly what to wear for a presentation.

#1 – Formality

Imagine your colleague showing up in coattails and a top hat to next Wednesday’s routine 3 pm project update meeting. That colleague will c.ertainly get noticed – but probably not in the right way. People will check him out. And maybe even check him in. Don’t be that person. It is probably just as bad to show up in shorts and a t-shirt.

As discussed in post 2, there are 3 major determinants of how you clad yourself for a presentation. Once you clarify these points, you must also consider the occasion. That is, the social context in which you will be speaking. Is it a casual team meeting or is it a black-tie event?

Gauge the formality of the event and dress accordingly. As a general rule, be at least as well dressed as your audience. If they will be wearing business suits, wear a business suit, at least. There are exceptions of course – but these are rare and will not apply to most professional contexts.

Master the scale of formality

The formality scale for clothing exists in every culture. I do not know of any society where people typically wear the same clothes to weddings as they do to perform housework. Clearly, as humans, we universally subscribe to the concept of dress codes – the garb may differ but the custom prevails.

The Western scale of formality

In Western culture, as with most, the formality scale ranges broadly from casual to formal. I found a useful pictorial representation of this concept at the time of publishing this article at Webfx.com. See below.

Infographic courtesy of Webpagefx.com

A simple guideline on formality for choosing how to dress for a presentation

Even though this focusses on Western dress codes, you can certainly apply the principle to any culture. The clothes that are worn may change, but the recommendation remains the same.

And what is the recommendation? It is deceptively simple – dress one step further on the formality scale than your audience. For example, if the audience will likely be in business casual attire, then wear a more formal smart-casual combination.

Why more formal?

It is about credibility and leadership. This may sound pretentious and even arrogant but if you are thinking this, then perhaps you have not read the previous posts where we covered this misconception. In summary, dressing this way shows your respect for the audience, the event, yourself and your message.

Why only one step?

I will admit that this is a general rule. You may choose to dress up to two steps higher but I do not recommend any more than that. Going up to three (or four) notches higher than your audience means you risk alienating yourself from them like our tailcoat wearing colleague from the example above. Use your best judgement based on this consideration.

In summary, dress at least as well as your audience in terms of formality. Slightly more formal is better. Less formal is ill-advised.

#2 – Fit

There is an ancient saying from the Yoruba tribe in Western Africa that loosely translates thus:

“How well your clothes suit you is more important than how nice they are or how much they cost”

This is especially important for you as a presenter. You will likely be at least a few feet from the closest audience member during most of your speech. And probably several feet from most of the rest of the audience. At such a distance, most people will not be able to judge what brand of clothing you have on or what materials your clothes (or accessories) are made of. But they will be able to notice how well the clothes fit.

How well your clothes suit you is more important than how nice they are or how much they cost – Ancient Yoruba proverb

What is good fit?

Good fit is unobtrusive but functional. Well-fitting clothes do three simple things

  • They allow you to be comfortable
  • They flatter your natural figure
  • They hide any imperfections so that you look your best

To be sure, this is not about body-shaming. It is about wearing clothes that send the right message about you and eliminate distractions. Nobody has the perfect body (what is perfect anyway?). We are all doing the best with what we have.

…this is not about body-shaming. It is about wearing clothes that send the right message about you and eliminate distractions.

Choose clothes that you feel confident in. The clothes should be neither too baggy nor too tight. Baggy communicates sloppy and tight clothes can be restricting and hence distracting. Make sure the clothes fit well around the shoulders, torso and mid-section. What “fits well” will differ between cultures. In Western attire, this means that the clothes fit fairly close to the body with minimal excess fabric while still allowing for free movement.

In summary on this point, pay attention to fit. You don’t have to go out and spend a fortune but you do want to think about how your clothes look on you. Fashion trends come and go but your understanding of what suits you is what really matters in choosing how to dress for a presentation.

#3 – Function

What will you be doing during your presentation? Will you be sitting, standing, moving around, drawing or writing on a screen or flipchart, demonstrating the use of a tool? All these will have an impact on what you wear. Ideally, if your clothes fit well, you can make most basic movements with ease.

Ideally, if your clothes fit well, you can make most basic movements with ease.

However, if your presentation will require a lot of mobility, then dress in a way that allows you that mobility without completely sacrificing the other elements we have been considering so far in this series. For example, if you will be moving about a lot, wear shoes with good traction. You don’t want to slip and fall. No, not running shoes – I am talking about rubber-soled dress-shoes.  If you will need to make big gestures with your hands a lot or do a lot of writing on a flipchart or screen, limit the number of layers on your sleeves so that you are not restricted.

The considerations are as varied as the possible scenarios. I recommend doing a literal dress rehearsal. Rehearse in the clothes you plan to wear on the day of the presentation. Not only will this reveal whether or not you have the right outfit in terms of function, it will help you get comfortable wearing those clothes and that will help your confidence on the day of the presentation.

#4 – Focus

Pop quiz – where should the audience focus be directed to for the majority of your presentation?

  1. Your presentation slides
  2. You
  3. Their phones
  4. Random thoughts
  5. Who cares?

Ok, I was being a bit playful with that one. There were only two serious options there. But the right answer is option 2 – you. Specifically, your face. Yes, you want the audience to look at your slides every now and then but if you have designed your speech and your presentation slides correctly, the audience should only be referencing the slides as a visual aid and not the main attraction. They are there for you – not your slides. And that brings me to an important point.

Look me in the eye

The decision of what to wear for a presentation should always be influenced by where you want to direct the audience’s attention when you are speaking. Most times, this will be your face. Therefore, if any aspect of your outfit is distracting the audience from your face, it is not serving you.

No one thing should stand out in your outfit so much that it takes the attention from your face. Everything should work harmoniously to create a positive impression overall. You want to look put together not slapped together.

You want to look put together not slapped together.

Items to say no to include but are not limited to:

No loud shoes

I know they cost a lot of money but save them for another time. Stick with plain dark shoes. If you will wear two-toned shoes, try to keep the tones dark and closely matched.

No overly glittering (read tacky) jewelry

These can be very distracting especially when you move and the lights hit them. Done especially badly, jewellery can also make you look gaudy – not what you want probably. If lighting will not be a problem, you can have one or two pieces on – just not too many and not too large.

No hats

You will probably be presenting indoors so ditch the hat. This varies across cultures though so do your homework if you will be presenting in an unfamiliar cultural context.

No flashy socks or loudly patterned leggings

These can be distracting if they will be seen as you walk. This is made even worse when your hosiery contrasts strongly with your trousers or skirt. Tread with caution.

No very heavy make-up

Sounds like a contradiction since it should be drawing attention to your face. Except it isn’t – heavy makeup draws attention to itself – in a bad way. You will rarely go wrong by keeping it understated and elegant.

Putting it all together

How to dress for a presentation is ultimately about respect for the audience, the context, yourself and your message. Add to these an understanding of your body and what looks good on you, and you will be able to put together an outfit like a pro – and look like one too. Your audience may not know how much thought has gone into it, but they will notice that you look like the kind of person they want to listen to. This will boost your credibility, increase your influence and raise your chances of success. All good things as I am sure you will agree.

Until the next post, speak with skill and be your best.