Career Guide


Are you presentable? Your clothes speak before you do!

You want your outfit to be red-hot on the tasteful scales You want your outfit to be red-hot on the tasteful scales

ONE of the things I get asked very often by my participants during my workshops is what to wear when they need to do public speaking or make a presentation. Whether you are a corporate professional, business owner, entrepreneur, there will be instances where you will need to stand in front of a crowd and showcase your products or expertise. But before you sell anything, you will need to sell YOU first. Your personal presentation is your marketing tool. You need to craft it well so that it represents and reinforces your message!

Here’s what you should do:

1 Analyse Your Event

Find out the theme and dress code of the event. Trust me, you’d look awkward in full suit when the rest of the cast are in safari outfits. Definitions like business casual and smart casual convey different meanings to different people. So, get the organisers to give you specific examples of what the audience will be wearing. In a typical Malaysian setting, you’d have the following events where you might be invited to give a presentation:

>> Offsite sales cycle meeting

>> Award presentation night

>> Annual company dinner

>> Sports club activity

>> Media product launch

>> Business conference

>> Networking session

You’d probably see your audience in jeans and T-shirts if they are attending an offsite sales cycle meet; in formal attire if it’s a business conference, and in business casuals for a networking event.

If you are travelling to the event and you are unsure, take several options with you so that you can adjust at the last minute. I once flew to Thailand to speak at an event and my luggage went elsewhere. Since then, I have learnt to always carry an extra outfit in my hand luggage.

2 Always Dress Better Than Your Audience

It is wrong to assume that you need to look like your audience. If you are standing in front, you must always look one step better. You need to command attention visually.

Dressing a notch higher gives you extra authority. But to me, one of the main reasons to do so is that it buys you a little insurance in case your audience analysis was flawed. If you dress one notch higher than your predicted audience dress code, and the audience is dressed better than you predicted, then you are still safe.

But let me stress that it’s only one notch higher. Not three. This means if your audience is in business casual, i.e shirt and tie, then as a gentleman, you should put on a jacket, but forgo the tie. And ladies can opt for a tailored dress instead of a matching skirt suit.

3 Know Where You Will Be Placed

On stage? Behind a podium? Sitting? These specifics play a role in deciding what you should be wearing. For example:

>> Flowery patterns are ok for a small audience, but if you are addressing a large crowd, then stick to plain colours for a better effect.

>> If you will be standing behind a podium or sitting behind a desk, then you should frame your portrait by putting on a nice necklace or choosing an elegant tie.

>> If you are required to sit on a sofa with the host, in front of the audience, then pay attention to the length of your skirt and shoes.

Choose your outfit based on where you're placed Choose your outfit based on where you're placed

4 Balance Between Your Personal and Professional Style

To evaluate your best style option for your speaking engagement, you need to answer these crucial questions: Who are you? What are you selling?

What you wear must support both you and your products as a holistic brand. Often I find that people have conflicting ideas when it comes to sending out their visual message. Regardless of what your personal style is, you have to balance it between what you like, and what you think the general audience can accept. For instance:

>> As a designer, you probably dig skinnies and leather jackets, pairing them with five earrings. So, to keep a good balance, you can keep your skinnies, but go for an overcoat and lose the earrings when you need to do a presentation. You want to come across as contemporary. Not creepy.

>> If you are a senior consultant, make sure you are not stuck in a style rut. Out-dated clothes send a message that your content and business philosophies may be out-dated as well. So remember to style up!

5 Prepare Your Outfit

When you’re standing in front of a group, with several sets of eyes focused on you, it is not the time to take chances with your new outfit. There are two important components you need to look at when it comes to preparing your outfit:

a) Your Silhouette: You need to create a flattering silhouette while speaking in front of a live audience.

>> Hence, for the gentlemen, a well-cut shirt will give you a sharp, distinct silhouette.

>> A sport coat worn unbuttoned, creates a slimming, vertical effect to your bodyline.

>> Ladies, an outfit that accentuates your waist is your best friend. So opt for a belt or pieces of clothing that have stitching or piping details along the waist.

>> Stay away from boxy, shift dresses that will make you look frumpy.

b) Your Colours: The colours you wear set your mood, the mood of the audience, and the mood of the whole presentation.

>> For professional engagements, go for rich colours like emerald or royal blue. Guys may add colours in the form of ties, or contrast the colours with the likes of a light pink shirt and a navy jacket.

>> If you are addressing a large audience, dynamic colours will bring forth the passion and enthusiasm you hold for the content of your message.

>> You are not Steve Jobs. Avoid all black. You run the risk of looking like a dark blob to the audience.

>> And even if you are selling candy, avoid neon. You will just look plain silly.

6 Test It Out

I once made a mistake of wearing a wool jacket that had shrunk after a few washes. I felt like I was in a straitjacket the whole day long. It is very important to feel physically comfortable so that you can fully engage with the audience without worrying about your buttons popping anytime.

So, do a fit test. Questions to ask are:

>> With your outfit on, can you gesture freely with both arms wide open?

>> Have you checked for loose threads and malfunctioning zippers?

>> Are your shoes making noise or can you stand for a long period of time with your three-inch heels?

>> Will your outfit make you sweat profusely in the event that the air-condition is not really working?

>> Are you accessories jing-jangling away?

Once you start to fidget, your audience will feel uncomfortable. So, the fewer visual distractions you offer your audience, the more likely they are to pay attention to your content, and the more confident you will appear to be.

7 Groom To Perfection

So, you’ve got everything figured out. Content checked. Clothes checked. Presentation tools checked. Before you walk out, do a last check on your grooming. Fix your hair so that you are not self-conscious or fiddling with it when you are speaking later. Check your face, teeth and makeup. Then take a deep breath, look into the mirror, give a mega-watt smile and you are ready to go!

Quality content, effective communication skills, and attractive visuals play a role in the success of today’s speakers. When you adorn an outfit that is both flattering and appropriate, your audience will tend to be more receptive and supportive when they see and feel a confident you.

So the next time you are out there in the limelight, remember to look your best!

Wendy Lee is the president of Mabic (Malaysian Association of Brand and Image Consultants) and a director at Brand Image International Institute (BII). She is a firm believer that with Style...there must be Substance!

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