The main reason numerous articles (including this one) have been written about dressing up for presentations lies in the fact that people are attracted to beauty. In one classic experiment in social psychology, male and female college students were shown photos of people who displayed different levels of attractiveness. The results of this survey showed the good-looking people were consistently thought of more positively. That’s not too surprising in itself, but the participants also assumed the more attractively presented individuals had more pleasing personalities, that they were more likely to land good jobs, and would be better relationship partners.
While this study wasn’t specifically related to presentations and presenters, it does tell us one thing as presenters: appearance matters. It is still very true, your message is more important than what you happen to be wearing, how you’ve styled your hair, or whether your features would generally be considered beautiful or handsome. But your listeners are human beings, and they respond as human beings do. And that means that they tend to be believe, be impressed by, and attach value and importance to things that are physically attractive, or come from attractive sources. So when you’re presenting, the attractive source should be you!
Presentation Fashion: Look Professional
The key to looking professional is to dress at the same level (or, preferably, at a slightly higher level) as your audience. If you haven’t been asked to follow a strict dress code, ask the event organizer about the people expected to be in your audience. Who are they, and how do they normally dress when attending a presentation at the planned venue? With this information you should able to confidently decide whether you should “dress up,” or if more casual clothing would be more appropriate.
Attire similar to what your audience is wearing has a psychological effect: it reduces the perceived gap between you, standing in front of the group, and the group member sitting in his or her chair. This is the same gap presenters often try to bridge using a relatable joke, anecdote or fact. Emphasizing similarity in a presentation leads the audience to believe you are on the same page as they are, an impression that contributes to a relaxed atmosphere.
Dressing a bit more professionally than most of your audience has a different effect: it tends to give you more authority in their minds. For example, if most men in the audience are wearing shirts and ties, wearing a suit, or at least a jacket and tie, elevates your perceived importance.
Whatever level of dress you decide is most appropriate, remember not to make your attire a distraction. For example, even if your look is generally appropriate, wearing flashy accessories may shift attention onto you, and away from your message.
Motivation: Dress for Credibility
Adam Galinsky and Hajo Adam, professors at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, published a paper entitled “Enclothed Cognition.” In brief, they discovered that the clothing a person wears can influence the person’s mental and emotional states. For example, when dressed in a doctor or scientist’s white lab coat, study participants tended to score higher on tests of attentiveness and mental sharpness. Putting this discovery to practical use, ask yourself this question when deciding on what to wear when presenting: What clothes would make me feel confident and credible?
Though the corporate suit has long been associated with professionalism, don’t let such considerations limit your choice of attire. For example, though TED speakers often wear traditional business attire, artist Amanda Palmer came out on stage to deliver her talk in a gray t-shirt, jeans, and boots. Did her choice make her out of place? No, her outfit furthered her message and highlighted her personality.
Simplicity: The Presentation Uniform
If you present or speak on a regular basis, consider using the same outfit for every speaking engagement. Thinking about what to wear takes time – time that could be spent on more important things such as speech preparation, practice and slide design.
Take inspiration from icons popular for wearing the same thing every day (or nearly so). President Obama usually wears a blue or gray suit. The late Steve Jobs was most often seen wearing his signature black turtleneck. Mark Zuckerberg usually appears in a gray shirt and a pair of jeans. Because of the demands of their jobs, they try to pare down decisions. Spending mental energy on making irrelevant decisions can cause decision fatigue.
Do you have other tips for effective dressing on presentation day? Please share them!