Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When you're speaking, what colors should you wear? 6 guideposts

Your purpose, your content, your voice are all, in theory, more important than your appearance when you're speaking. But nothing can undermine you faster as a speaker than how you look, and sometimes, your choices of what to wear, including color, can thwart your own best efforts.

If it sounds silly to consider color when planning how you'll look when speaking, consider this: I once watched a woman speaking about an important issue--getting young women out to vote--on CNN. She wore what I think many women would consider to be an ideal outfit. Her red collarless blazer had strong shoulders and framed a cream-colored blouse and pearls. Her hair, a pale blonde shade, almost matched the blouse...and so did her skin tone. She wore almost no makeup.

And here's what I saw: A red blob on either side, bleeding at the edges (as red sometimes does on television), with a ghost-like presence in the center. Her face and torso (aside from the blazer) were so monochromatic and pale that she almost was invisible. Her suit completely overshadowed her self, at least visually.

Here's a bolder example: Many observers were startled when photos came out before the Democratic National Convention in 2008 of Hillary Clinton staffers holding up suits of different colors against the blue backdrop that would be behind her. But it was a smart move, color-wise. Clinton ultimately chose a bold orange suit, one that not only complemented her coloring, but stood out against the blue and enlivened the picture. (Blue and orange are opposite one another on the color wheel, which means they're most energetic when paired together.)  Here's video of Clinton in that suit, with that background:


Women will encounter color challenges more than men, given the wider range of colors they can wear--and that can be a plus or a minus. Here's some guidance that will work for both men and women:
  • Start with your skin and hair color:  If your face and hair are pale (which means no hair, white hair, gray hair, blonde hair and sometimes red hair), wear a dark suit jacket to help bring you into focus. (Gentlemen, leave that khaki suit at home.) Conversely, don't wear pale shirts, suits or scarves. In doubt? A French blue shirt, scarf, tie or jacket will complement any skin color or hair color (see right), and will draw attention to your face. (That's why you see blue as the backdrop color at so many news conferences and events.)
  • Think about brightness and color values: Pure white, the brightest value, will draw the eye--or the camera--more than any other color. That's great if you want them to look at your white jacket or your white shirt, but not so great if you want to be visible. Again, think of mid-tones, like that French blue shirt.
  • On television or video? It makes a difference. Red jackets, which many women wear as powerful symbols and to stand out, can bleed at the edges--a distraction for the viewers. Whites, again, will draw the camera...away from you. And patterns like stripes, houndstooth checks or plaids, can appear to move, a real audience distraction.
  • What looks great on you in person and close up may not read well when you're speaking:  Just because you like a color, or look good in it in person (ditto for patterns), doesn't mean it reads well when I'm 30 rows away. When in doubt, grab a pal and get some video or photos in the setting to help you decide.
  • Consider the background: Clinton's aides had the right idea (and they tested light blue, turquoise, red and orange suit options). If your background is French blue, you don't want to blend into it, so limit yourself to a blue shirt or scarf and a dark or contrasting suit. It pays to find out ahead of time what color you'll be standing against.
  • Use the color wheel: The color wheel helps artists blend and contrast colors, and you can use it to consider what works well against another color background, as Clinton did. Opposites on the color wheel make the other color stand out energetically (as in red/green, or blue/orange). Those are bold choices, but guaranteed to highlight you.
What adventures in color have you experienced when speaking? Share them in the comments.

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1 comment:

Patricia Frame said...

Great reminders, thanks. Check your make-up too -- there is a video of me in a fabulous red lipstick that turned almost black on the video and is terrible to watch as a result -- you can learn from my mistake!