What to wear for a presentation: 3 points to consider

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The question is about what to wear for a presentation. But maybe you have another question – is my outfit really that important? Shouldn’t people judge me by my character and my content? In the first post in this series, we talked about why you should care what you wear for a presentation. You can read that article here. In this post, we take the concept a step further to briefly discuss some considerations. Let us begin.

Why care

How you look is an important part of your presentation. That’s why its called a presentation. You are presenting as well as present-ing. That is your presence matters and is an integral part of your message. In other words, your appearance is speaking too. It is up to you to control that aspect of the conversation as much as every other. For more details on this, read this article.

I will assume you now agree with me that what you wear is worth thinking about. Therefore, in this article, let us look at some important points to keep in my mind when selecting what to wear.

Implications for persuasion

People like people like them. This makes sense intuitively – we believe this to be true on a gut level. Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on gut alone as scientists have shown this to be true.

In an interesting experiment, scientists had actors solicit money from strangers on the street. They used the same actors each time but changed one variable – how they dressed.

People like people like them

In one instance, the actors dressed in casual clothes – think jeans and t-shirts. And in the second, the actors dressed more formally – think suit jackets and dress slacks. In both cases, the level of cooperation from the strangers measured by their willingness to give the actors money was used to gauge the actors’ influence. Remember the strangers had no idea these were actors. What did the results reveal?

The actors got more money from strangers who were dressed like them. That is, the casually dressed actors got more cooperation from casually dressed strangers and similarly, the formally dressed strangers were more likely to comply with the requests that came from the formally dressed solicitors.

For our purposes, this reveals an interesting dynamic – what you wear will affect your ability to persuade.

What determines what to wear for a presentation?

Is it your personal style? This can have an influence but should not be the only thing you consider.

Is it the weather? Maybe, but unless you are presenting outdoors, the marvel of indoor atmospheric control will lessen how much this influences your garb.

Is it what was clean in your closet the day of? No. Absolutely not. Unless it also happens to fulfil the conditions below.

Three things determine what you wear – your audience, your persona and your purpose.

Your audience

As the experiment above shows, who your audience is will be an important consideration in picking how you appear. It also shows us that dressing up is not always the right option. As with all things in your presentation, being intentional and deliberate is a better approach than just applying a blanket principle.

Whether you are presenting to an audience of one or one thousand, it is that audience that determines how you present yourself. But there’s more to this than merely looking like the audience as the experiment might lead us to believe.

Persuasion is not that simple. As always there are back-stories and sub-stories. And that brings to the next points.

Your persona and purpose – What Mr B taught me

I lumped these two factors – persona and purpose – together because they go hand-in-hand. Let me illustrate by telling you about my high-school chemistry teacher.

When I was in high school, one of the most influential people in my life was my chemistry teacher – Mr B. He not only had a clear and crisp command of his subject, he had a true enthusiasm that was infectious. I must say that although I had loved the subject even before I was in high school, Mr B was a major force in my decision to pursue my first degree in the field of Industrial Chemistry. Now that’s influence.

Funny thing though, Mr B did not dress like me to class. Did your high school teacher dress like you?

Mr. B’s persona

Mr B had an important persona to maintain – he was the teacher, the mentor, the leader, the role-model. He was not a peer or a “buddy”. Dressing like a teenager could have actually hurt his effectiveness.

Mr. B’s purpose

Mr B’s purpose was to teach. He needed us to take him seriously – hard enough for a room of teenagers without showing up in baggy jeans and a turned-back baseball cap (those were “in” back then).

Instead of trying to dress like us – to be “hip” and “cool” (those words were “in” back then too), Mr B let his enthusiasm, humour, passion, social savvy and command of his subject draw us in like nothing else could. Not even the latest pair of rainbow coloured sneakers.

What is your persona?

Here is the key – dress for the persona you are projecting. If you want to be seen as a peer, then dress like your audience – don’t show up in a pinstriped suit if they will be overalls. But if your position calls for a persona of authority, then it may serve you to dress the part – not to intimidate but to avoid disappointing your audience. Trust me, it is easier to be seen as a leader when you look like one.

…it is easier to be seen as a leader when you look like one.

What to wear for a presentation – Peer-to-Peer dynamics

Now there is something to be said for the peer persona. You might want a peer persona – leaders do this all the time. Perhaps you have seen presidents don denim when visiting a rural community of farmers. They do this to look a little bit more like their audience and close the gaping void between the realities of their worlds.

But even among peers, research has shown that there are non-verbal indicators of who has influence within a peer group. And physical appearance has a lot to do with that. The peers who have more influence, usually look the part.

In other words, it is not enough to look like a peer, you need to look like the kind of peer that deserves respect and commands influence.  What that looks like will vary from group to group but it might be worth finding out before you pick out your clothes and jump on stage or into a meeting.

This post was meant to get you thinking about how you are presenting yourself. In the next post, I will go into the four Fs that will determine in practical terms, what you should be wearing for a presentation whether it is a presentation to one or many.

Till then, speak with skill.