Body Language – Appearance & Clothes

What to wear to project a professional image

Appearance alone doesn’t make the speaker, but it does determine the image the audience forms of you and may influence the effectiveness of your presentation. Dress the way you would like the audience to perceive you. Follow some basic rules: Be neat. Iron your clothes. Shine your shoes. Clean and trim your fingernails. Check your makeup. Brush your teeth. You get the idea.

Be aware that your clothes can project a high authority image, a neutral image, or a low authority image. Remember to dress for the audience and not for yourself. This means taking into account the demographics of the audience – age, level, education, industry – as well as their cultural expectations. A key guideline is to never dress less formally than your audience. Get to know the styles, cuts, and colors which flatter your height, weight, and body type. If necessary, seek the guidance of an image consultant to help you assemble an appropriate wardrobe and present a more professional image. While it is true that inner qualities are important, poor first impressions are difficult to erase. So why jeopardize your success?

When presenting to international audiences, take cultural differences into account. Nevertheless, stay true to who you are. Don’t adapt to local cultural styles so much that you compromise your professionalism or appear to be pandering for acceptance. If you wish to wear clothes from another culture, save them for after-work hours. Also, don’t shop alone for ethnic clothing. Take along a trusted friend, colleague, or colleague’s wife, who can advise you about appropriate styles and colors in that country. This applies especially to women. For example, if a businesswoman were to travel to India and decide to wear a sari for dinner, she would need to wear a matching blouse and sandals to complete the look. Making do with a tshirt or sneakers on a sari could make her appear silly and compromise her professional image.

For men, appropriate dress means that it is better to wear a suit and tie. That way, if the audience is dressed casually you can always take off your jacket, or later, even your tie. However, you cannot put on an item of clothing that you do not have! A dark blue suit works with almost all shades of skin color. A white, or lightly striped shirt is a good, formal choice. Shirts with checkered designs come across as more casual.

Similarly, women should select classic business-style clothing and avoid dressing in ways that draw attention away from the message of their presentation. In particular they should stay away from excessive jewelry, short skirts, low necklines or or anything which compromises their professionalism.

Both men and women should avoid looking too faddish. In a corporate context, you want to appear reliable and steady, not like someone who changes with the wind. On the other hand, with a younger audience or in a college or university setting, you may be able to get away with more fashionable styles that make you look “cool”.

Most important, wear professional clothes that you feel comfortable in. Most people have many clothes in their closets, but only a few favorite outfits. Choose the clothes you are going to wear in advance. Clean, launder, or iron whatever you have decided on the night before, at the latest. The more arrangements you have in place before your presentation, the less you have to worry about.