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Public Speaking Tips: What to wear

Updated on August 4, 2017

Tom Ware - Speaker

The silver and black tie matches the light blue-grey suit.   This is an outfit which is formal but not too formal.
The silver and black tie matches the light blue-grey suit. This is an outfit which is formal but not too formal.

The public speaker's wardrobe

Welcome to Public Speaking Tips: What to wear.

You need to understand that what I say here is based on my personal observations as both a speaker and a person who has seen many other presenters in action. You might not necessarily agree. I say this, because we are talking about personal preferences when it comes to things such, appearance, dress code, and colors. But let us continue.

The audience has never seen you before

When an audience has never clapped eyes on you before there are only four ways in which they make that initial evaluation as to whether you’re worth their attention. They are how you look, what you do, what you say and how you say it. In this essay I will write on just the first of these four: how you look.

For the formal business presentation - everything pretty serious.

It is a good idea when speaking to leave you coat undone.  It's a bit like opening folded arms and taking off dark glasses. You then appear more relaxed, more accommodating.
It is a good idea when speaking to leave you coat undone. It's a bit like opening folded arms and taking off dark glasses. You then appear more relaxed, more accommodating.

You need their immediate tacit approval

How you look can immediately make a positive or a negative impact, the strength of which will be determined by the bias of the viewer. Whether you like it or not, as a speaker you need their immediate tacit approval if you’re not to evoke its opposite: a response of disapproval. So it behooves you to dress appropriately. But more than that: if you wish to make the most of this moment, be conscious of the dress codes and their subtle effects on the viewer.

And these subtle effects? Well, here are some of them.

Speaking Tips: What to wear

Always dress roughly the same but a little better than the average member of the audience. This shows respect. If it’s suits and ties; you wear a good quality suit and a tie which matches, that is, does not clash with the suite’s color. On the other hand, let’s suppose it’s a casual affair. The audience are mostly wearing T-shirts and blue jeans; you wear a good quality shirt and sports slacks. Everything neat and clean. I think you get the picture.

Notic how the light colored coat lightens up the speakers 'persona.'

Here is an example of a well-dressed man.   Note no clashing colors, modest tie which is just the right length.
Here is an example of a well-dressed man. Note no clashing colors, modest tie which is just the right length.

Appropriate speaker attire - be aware of it

But there is even more to it than that. I can recall twice attending a course where an expert in Appropriate Speaker Attire presented the audience with a concept I hadn’t heard of up until then. She (in both instances it was a woman presenter) said that people basically fall into two colors streams: silver and gold. How she found out which color suited, was to call members out of the audience and place firstly silver, and then a golden shawl around their shoulders. To the viewers it became apparent straight way which of these two colors either enhanced or detracted from the skin and hair tones of the target. Depending upon their color, their skin either looked sallow and sickly or healthy. Uncanny, but true.

Which colors match your skin tone

This good lady then went on to describe how to augment colors which match up with those of the silver tone results or with the gold respectively. Surprisingly, most people fell into the former category – the silver. I cannot recall all the colors, but blue matched up readily with those who skin tones showed up favorably with the silver shawl. People with ginger or red hair seemed to match up better with the gold and the colors which augmented gold. However, it wasn’t just a matter of brunettes and blondes, but something far more intangible.

I am writing this from a memory which is at least fifteen years old, so please bear with me if I cannot remember many of the color combinations.

Dressed up for a very special occassion.

I don't wear a bow tie too often...but for special occassions - yes!
I don't wear a bow tie too often...but for special occassions - yes!

Public Speaking tips: what to wear

Black, being the absence of reflected light, suited all skin types. White, which is the reflected light of the whole visual light spectrum, was also fine with all skin types.

A few more things about color and public speakers. The lighter shades, off-white, light grays or light blues for example, come across as more accommodating and friendly to an audience. The darker colors carry more authority. So if you’re a comedian or entertainer go for the lighter colors. If you want to persuade on a matter in which you regard yourself as an authority, go for the darker suit. It’s probably no accident that ministers of religion generally wear dark clothing in the pulpit. They are speaking with authority.

What's appropriate - choose wisely

There was a time when the black tie and tuxedo ruled. I’m not sure whether that’s appropriate today – except perhaps in the most formal of the formal gatherings. I recall observing the keynote speaker addressing a National Speakers Association Conference on a most important matter at that time: the selection of Australia to host the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. He was dressed in a navy blue or black jacket, white shirt, (I forget the tie color, but probably red) and wearing light grey sports pants. So if it’s good enough for an event this important for a keynoter to wear sports jacket and trousers, it calls for a very special event indeed to have this attire regarded as too casual.

Dress to suit the occassion.

Here I am speaking at an informal gathering.
Here I am speaking at an informal gathering.

leading politicians are dressed by experts

Oh, by the way, there is some credence in a red tie or at least a bright tie, purporting to be the mark of a more energetic and dynamic personality. Note the politicians. They’re dressed by experts to cut just the right amount of authority and energy. Their advisors do take this sort of thing very seriously.

Don't look like 'Hicksville' or a standup comic

There is quite a bit to this necktie thing. I won’t go into all the subtleties here about width, stripes, squares, polka dots and the like. What I will say is that it is accepted standard to wear a tie at the correct – accepted as correct – length, which is down to the belt buckle. If it ends too high up on the chest it’s regarded as ‘Hicksville.’ If way below the belt buckle, it like you’re deliberately trying to be funny.

Tie too short

How not to wear a tie.  This is far too short.
How not to wear a tie. This is far too short.

Speaking tips: what to wear

There used to be a lot of talk about ‘power dressing.’ For example, dark suit, dark colored pin-stripe shirt underneath – everything dark. It started to get to the ridiculous stage, I think. All that was needed was dark glasses and the speaker could be mistaken for a Mafia hit man. Sure, wear dark clothing if that is your wish. Don’t expect to win over the audience quite so readily, though. Few audiences like too much authority pushed at them in this manner. Winning them over might be just that fraction more difficult.

This interpretation of dark clothing does not apply to funerals, of course, where somber colors are expected.

color matching is important

Another point to watch out for: clashing colors. Dark brown and dark blue don’t mix. That’s obvious to all but the most insensitive. Dark blue, light blue together – fine. Dark brown and tan – fine. Dark green and light green – fine. Opposites are also fine: red and green, yellow and blue. A good point to remember is do not have too many colors in your outfit. Three, four at most, and this includes your jewellery if you’re wearing same.

Patricia Fripp - A top public speaking and speaker coach

This beautiful woman portrays here  how to dress as a speaker to be taken seriously.  Patricia Fripp is a world-renowed speaker.
This beautiful woman portrays here how to dress as a speaker to be taken seriously. Patricia Fripp is a world-renowed speaker.

Avoid banges and beads - keep the jewellery modest

If you do have jewellery on keep it modest. A man might have a gold belt buckle, and gold wrist-watch, gold tie-pin and a gold wedding ring. If one of these items happens to be silver whilst everything else is gold it could be noticed and detract ever so little from that first impact.

If you have a belt, let it either match your suite, that is, not clash with it, or your shoes. Black shoes and a black belt are fine. Grey shoes, grey belt, fine.

Judge for yourself - It's your decision how you dress

I realize that all of this sounds very pedantic but I’m trying to relay to you the rudiments of what I learned from these experts. The way this can be judged for oneself – apart from the glance in the mirror before you head off to speak – is to see yourself in a still photograph or a video later on. Was there anything which struck you as outlandish or not quite right as you presented appearance-wise. Did anything detract from your appearance? If it didn’t then – congratulations – you’re doing it right.

I hope you enjoyed and got something out of reading Public Speaking Tips: What to wear.

Keep happy.



Submit a Comment
  • Dee aka Nonna profile image

    Dee aka Nonna 

    7 years ago

    I truly have been busy because I've missed several. This one brought back to me an experience from years ago when I lived in Texas. Like you Tom, I enjoy talking to audiences about various things and love entertaining with stories. Someone heard me and recommended me to a group of businessmen in Houston, TX. I was advised by the husband of a good friend to dress a particular pant or pant suits but a dress with a jacket. I didn't particularly like the look but sought out help...what we ended up with is something I usually do not wear but I did it. Long story short is that the presentation went so well that I got so many recommendations from that men's group that I could hardly keep up. The way you dress definitely makes a difference. Good one Tom. Voted up, useful

  • LindseyCrockett profile image


    7 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

    good hub

  • carol3san profile image

    Carolyn Sands 

    7 years ago from Hollywood Florida

    Good advice Tusitala Tom. Your pictures look very sharp. I agree that when you are dressed for the ocassion you will have much more confidence. Voted up. Happy New Year.

  • Deborah Brooks profile image

    Deborah Brooks Langford 

    7 years ago from Brownsville,TX

    Great HUB.. i know for a fact this is so true.. How you dress says it all

    I voted up

    Happy New Year.

  • Tusitala Tom profile imageAUTHOR

    Tom Ware 

    7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

    Yes, Akune, and thanks.

    There is a helluva lot more to this dressing for presentations thing but I didn't want to go on forever.

  • akune profile image


    7 years ago from Surrey, England, United Kingdom

    A useful article. Ha ha. You really had to include the tie-length paragraph, right?


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