Friday, November 6, 2009

Week 10: What to think about appearance

In week 10 of our Step Up Your Speaking program, I asked Stephanie to try on an outfit she might wear for a speech and to share her thoughts about appearance, which you can see in this video. She did what many women speakers do: Chose an appropriate, neat and attractive outfit--and played it safe, running right up the middle of the wide range of wardrobe choices she might have made. And when you're starting out as a speaker, that's one way to go. For starters, your comfort level will be higher if you're wearing an outfit that's not distracting to you or your audience.

An advantage and disadvantage that women face as speakers is the wide range of wardrobe choices they can (or have to) make. How can Stephanie and any other woman speaker figure out how to make those choices? I think that's where we'll focus this week's coaching. Here's my best advice on deciding on your appearance as a speaker:

  1. Cover the basics first: Whatever you wear needs to fit you, be clean and accommodate all the movements you might make as a speaker, whether you're reaching high to point at a chart or crawling under the lectern to adjust an electrical plug. See the list of basic questions in my checklist for the whole speaker to cover these issues when choosing what to wear.
  2. Consider color: The ability to wear a wide range of colors is an advantage of women's wardrobes, but it also calls more attention to you visually in ways that may be uncomfortable (as Hillary Clinton found out during one of the presidential campaign debates when her coral jacket stood out among the black suits of her male competitors--and became the subject of jokes by the end of the debate). Don't let that put you off, and do use color as a way to focus eyes on you.
  3. Ensure the speaker's comfort: I taught a day-long workshop on communications skills yesterday to more than 100 scientists, and you can bet my wardrobe choices included flat shoes with great support. No matter how attractive your outfit, if it makes you, the speaker uncomfortable in any way, don't wear it. It's not worth the distraction--and you have more important things to focus on, like your comfort.
  4. Ensure the audience is focused on the right part of your speech: If your jewelry, the fit (or lack thereof) of your clothing or any aspect of your appearance distracts your audience, you'll only have succeeded in focusing them on how you look, rather than what you are saying. If you gesture a lot, that might mean removing rings before you speak, since they become more noticeable when your hands are moving. Check my list of things to remove before speaking for more ideas.
  5. Consider how you want to be seen: A suit or dress--or more formal attire--isn't always a must for a woman speaker. Consider your audience and think about how you want to be seen, what overall image you want to project, and then match the clothing to fit that type of presence. For example, if I'm leading a long-format workshop with a group that's going to be casually dressed, I won't wear a suit--that might be too intimidating. Instead, I'll aim to look approachable and down-to-earth, in pants and a sweater or unconstructed jacket, for example. Use the variety in women's wardrobe choices to your advantage in this way, and remember that being able to take command of the room doesn't always require that suit of armor.
  6. It's not just about the clothes. Your smile, eye contact, confidence, and content all matter more than your clothes--but clothes, jewelry and other appearance issues can subtract from those more important qualities. Make sure they complement, rather than distract us from, who you are and what you have to say.

I hope Stephanie and you find these considerations helpful. If you've found that appearance issues have tripped you up--or helped you create an advantage as a speaker--let us know about it in the comments. We welcome your tips and experiences!

Related posts: What does your speaker wardrobe say?

The double-edged sword of fashion

Image: another double-edged sword

4 things to remove before speaking

A checklist for the whole speaker (with 6 questions about wardrobe and more about intent)