Ep #49: What to Wear for Your Next Speaking Event

by | Podcast

Today's episode is super practical and will (hopefully) help you solve a problem that every speaker runs into: what to wear on the big day! Your clothes send a message, and the audience assumes that you picked your outfit with care (whether you did or not). So in this super actionable episode, I'm talking about what you should consider when picking out your outfit for your next speaking event.

What you wear should reflect your credibility and expertise, connect well with your audience, and look great on camera – both for photos and videos. But the most important thing to remember is this: dress in a way that helps you feel comfortable being you. You are the reason they are all there, after all!

Listen in as I walk through the top three things to consider when choosing what to wear for your speaking event. I share some of my own clothing mishaps, some great resources for understanding what will look great onstage, and why I firmly believe that less is more.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why it's so important to closely consider what you're going to wear for your speaking event.
  • How to have fun with your outfit and feel like yourself while also respecting your audience.
  • Why you should prioritize comfort and feeling good in your own skin when dressing for an event.
  • What to think about when choosing patterns and colors.
  • The top three things to keep in mind about your outfit for speaking.

Listen to the Full Episode:

Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:

I remember watching this woman super carefully walk up the side stairs to take the stage in her stiletto heels, and I was almost holding my breath watching her from the audience. Then when she got up to the microphone and she started speaking, it sounded like she was holding her breath. I'm not sure if it was nerves or shapewear that she was wearing that was constricting her diaphragm, but I know that she had so much more resonance in her voice than we got to experience. I could just tell that she didn't seem comfortable in her super cute dress. I want you to feel amazing in your clothes and full of physical freedom, so let's talk about how you can do this.

Welcome to The Thought Leadership School podcast. If you're on a mission to make a difference in the world with your message, you are in the right place. I'm Michelle Barry Franco, and I'm thrilled that you're here.

Hello, my friend. What's happening in your world? I hope you are having a beautiful, beautiful day. I am. I'm so excited to talk to you about today's topic because it feels so actionable, practical, and actually kind of easy to implement, even though there are a lot of moving parts to it. Plus, I know that this is a game changer for you when you're speaking. It's this super fun win all around, and yet it can seem like a kind of superficial topic.

This topic is very much on my mind because the speakers in my Thought Leadership speaking program are about to do their talks this next week. As a culminating event in this program, we create this somewhat low stress, although I don't know if any speaking event as low stress for most people, but also really cool real-life speaking experience. We create this event where they deliver their talks to a live and loving audience. I bring in a professional photographer, a videographer. We rent a location with this stage. It's awesome. Turns out really beautiful. There are these beautiful assets that get created. They get speaker reel and photos of them speaking to use for their speaker pages, but also this really great experience of speaking from a stage. Many of them have already spoken from stages, but with all of these other elements in place, speaking from a stage around a message that they've spent a lot of time and practice crafting and refining. It's just beautiful. It's exciting. And we're down to the last few days before this event happens.

As I said, these aren't brand new speakers. They know what they're doing, but they are stepping into their next level of speaking, whatever that is, and really thought leadership overall within their industry with a talk that they've spent a lot of time crafting and that's really a deeper reflection of the message they really want to share. It feels kind of like a big deal in that way, and it's exciting. I love that I get to be a part of that, and I love that we get to create this experience around it.

And naturally, as the day draws near, questions begin arising about what to wear for this event because there are quite a few things to juggle. What do they feel good wearing while they deliver? What do they believe will look good on them? What do they feel good wearing? What will work with the lighting, and the background, and this particular environment at this particular stage? What will connect with their audience, reflect their own expertise, credibility, send the right message? All those things that come through our minds as we're thinking about what to wear when we're about to go do a meaningful, important talk.

Then, of course, add to this that there's video and photography. Certain prints don't work well on video. Certain fabrics are more likely to get disheveled and then caught on film forever in particularly that position. So if you wear sticky fabric that's just going to get caught or your collar's going to end up caught during your whole talk, it's going to mean some trickiness with the photos, for example. So you want to think about all these things. Certain colors don't work as well on our skin tone in film and video.

Then, finally, there's the actual delivery experience. They're delivering in a real room, in a room with a real live audience, just like you are when you're speaking. You're asking yourself these same questions. What you decide to wear can meaningfully impact your actual delivery really on a number of levels.

If your feet are aching, if they're in pain because you wear shoes that are too high, too new, too small, whatever, it's going to make you stand more still than you otherwise would because when you move, it hurts. Just your subconscious is going to be like, “Just stay right here. It's safer.” It's also likely to even minimize your voice level. It's like when we're in pain, if we make ourselves a little smaller, we're less likely to experience that pain. It's kind of the subconscious tendency. So both from a movement perspective and a voice perspective, those shoes matter. Very tight shapewear can constrict your breath, and your voice, and your movement.

It might seem kind of superficial to focus too much on what to wear for a speaking event. After all, this is all about making a difference with your message. But the thing is, if what you decided to wear stops you from expressing yourself in the way that you know you're capable of, then you haven't given your audience everything you can. Equally important, if you ask me, you haven't shown yourself. You haven't lived into what you know you're capable of. When you know that you're meant to serve with a message as a speaker and a thought leader, that's a big part of what we're doing. What we're looking for, what we're driven by is knowing what we're capable of in making an impact. What you're wearing can meaningfully diminish that, so this does matter.

And frankly, if you're doing video and photography, which you should always do every time you speak, any chance you get, because those are hugely, amazingly valuable assets as a speaker and a thought leader, and then you have video of you wearing something that feels awful or you see yourself moving in a weird, awkward way because of the shoes you were wearing or whatever, you're not going to share it. You're not going to want to share it with everyone you can think of. And sharing it with freedom and excitement is part of how you get more opportunities to serve, so you really want to do everything you can to love these, the video and the images so that you'll share them far and wide.

Let's focus on the three most important things to think about when you're deciding what to wear to your next event. The first top of the list is you, above all else. Hear me. You want to be comfortable. Now, I'm not saying you're going to wear your jammies, or your sweatpants, or your yoga pants, but you want whatever you choose to wear to be a nonissue for you when you're up on that stage. Sitting in that audience, as I watched that speaker who was teetering on the brink of falling on her high heels on the stairs, as she's moving toward that stage, I was totally distracted from the topic at hand. I mean, I was really … I was worrying about her. I was thinking about her, and it didn't allow her to make her beautiful impact. My heart went out to her. The truth is, I've been my own version of her.

When I first started speaking, I remember feeling so nervous about being up in front of everyone that I totally over thought everything related to clothes, hair, all of it. I knew that it mattered what I said and I … By the way, I'd been speaking for many years. But here I am now. I had made up in my mind that this was so much more high stakes because I was speaking on behalf of my own business and my own work in the world. Of course, my thinking, as we know, our thinking can get us all wound up about lots of things, just got me caught up in all these different directions. I remember just like, “What should I wear?” I remember wearing shirts that felt super uncomfortable as I moved around. I remember working forever on my hair when what I really wanted to do was do another run through of the talk, and in particular the intro because I knew that that was a place that I wanted to make my greatest connection, but also focused on getting my hair right.

I'm not saying these things don't matter. It's just knowing it's that balance between, yes, feeling good, creating the outfit, and the clothing, and the hair that you're going to feel good about on video, but recognizing that your comfort and your connection with the audience is the most important thing. Choose especially your clothes with that in mind.

And yet, even though I spent all that time overthinking, I wasn't thinking about the right things. I wasn't thinking about comfort. I wasn't thinking about that balance of comfort and looking good and feeling good in what I was wearing, and so I ended up wearing the bank blue shirt, which led to a very expensive video. I brought in a videographer and had all this video taken of me as I was speaking in this … I don't know. It was like one of those no-iron … Just blue. Blue, like trust-us blue like banks use. Shirts, no pattern or anything, and it was really hot in that room.

At the risk of TMI here, I really want you to know because I think it's my job, my responsibility to tell you. If you war a trust-me blue or slash bank blue shirt in a hot room, and you're nervous, and you're inclined to sweat, there's a good chance that you're going to get some sweat rings under your arms. And if you've hired a very expensive videographer for this, you're probably going to only be able to use certain pieces of video where you're not raising your arms in dramatic gesturing. And dramatic gesturing can be a really great way to engage your audience. It's possible I was doing some extra dramatic gesturing that day.

First of all, it's about you. You want to be comfortable. Think through some of these things, like what kinds of fabrics and colors work well on me and also work well under the circumstances so that you'll be happily and without a worry lifting your arms, and gesturing, and enjoying your time up there, and not sweating extra because you wore a fully polyester outfit or some fluffy … I've seen some speakers wear these fluffy vests or jackets, and I can tell that they're hot. Don't do that to yourself. Think about you and what's comfortable for you.

Wear something that feels good on your body, a fabric you love, a color you feel great looking at yourself in. If you're into shapewear, there's nothing inherently wrong with shapewear. I like it. Just wear the kind that smooths if that's what you're looking for, that's an effect that you want. You don't have to do it, by the way. But if that's an effect that you want, and I'm talking mostly to the women here, although I know that there are some men who were shapewear, and really, all across the genders, it doesn't matter, if you like shapewear just don't wear the kind that puts so much pressure on you that we don't get the fullness of your voice. That's really something to think about.

We'll also we'll talk more about this, but think generally less is more. We want to get to know you, which means bringing your personal style to the stage is fabulous. Wear that chunky turquoise necklace that reflects your roots and your love of handmade jewelry. Show off those combat boots, I mean, assuming it makes sense with your audience, which we're going to talk about more in a minute. Heck, wear your tiara if it makes sense with your topic. In fact, it's really fun when your outfit supports your talk specifically.

Cameron Russell does a TED Talk and she uses her clothes, really, as an amplifying aid in her … Her talk is called Looks Aren't Everything. Believe Me, I'm a Model. It's a great talk. She does a beautiful job of audience analysis in there, so little side note. It's also a beautiful message that I can't wait to share with my daughters. But, she does a full wardrobe change in her intro, so it's really interesting. She talks about the impact of clothing on our impression of her from the audience. We'll put a link to that talk inside the show notes. I'm going to give you a lot of links today, because I ended up finding a lot of fun research and articles to share with you on this. It's a fun topic.

As I used to tell my college students, for example, if you're speaking on how to retire early and you're speaking to a bunch of financial planners, I think maybe top of mind might be, well, they're financial planners. They probably dress a little bit on the nicer side, nice suit jacket, or at least a really nice shirt and pants. Maybe. That's cool. And if that's your style and feels good to you, great. But, wearing a Hawaiian shirt could be a pretty cool amplifying aid because maybe … You'd have to speak to it, right? But you're showing them what's possible. You're showing them what's possible for them and for their clients when investments go … are so well done that you actually don't have to go to work in a suit regularly and you get to where you're Hawaiian shirts more. You can be creative with your style. You want it to be consistent with your message and make sense for your audience.

Tim Ferriss does a version of this kind of super casual style with his casual t-shirt and jeans. You can see different speaker videos of him wearing this really casual t-shirt and jeans at these TED Conferences. He's the man of the four-hour work week, so it's part of his message to be very relaxed. In fact, this is a bit about audience analysis as well, which is what we're going to talk about next, is considering your audience. But at TED Conferences, there is this kind of hyper casual vibe a lot of times, so it also fits in for that reason as well.

Whether we like it or not, our clothes send a message and our audience assumes that we chose it intentionally. We can totally send a message that we're excited to send, especially when you let comfort lead for you. Then you choose something simple that feels good to wear and lets your message shine. There's the first top of the list is you, all about you, your comfort, your message, your expression. But of course, your audience is so essential. We talk about this all the time. In so many ways, it's all about them.

I always say it's all about them. Because if we don't think of our messages, and our speaking, and our thought leadership that way, they're not going to pay attention to us. And we want to serve them, so we want to do what we can to create connection. Really thinking about who is this audience and how can I show through what I've chosen to wear that I get them, that were connected, that we have similarities, that there's crossover. Dress in a way that they see you as one of them, or at least that there's a connection there, but not necessarily just like them. You don't want to blend in.

I always like to think … Think of it as dress sort of at the level they'll be dressing and then but one level up. Think about how will they likely dress, and then go one step up. I believe that shows respect for the gift of their time and attention, for the gift they've given you of that stage and that space to share your message, to serve them with your stories and expertise.

I read this article in the Yale Scientific online publication. It was from 2012. We're in 2019. That was seven years ago. But it said, essentially, that more skin, when we show more skin on our bodies, others perceive us as less intelligent, less competent, I actually think is the word they used. They say things like V-necks, and sleeveless shirts, and all of that. They call it out as an objectification issue that when there's more skin showing, we lose focus on the person's mind, their intellect, or their competence and we focus more on their body was the essence of this message. I'll put a link in the show notes so you can look at it.

I think this is kind of fascinating. I'm really curious to know if this has changed over time. I didn't do any deeper research. But I'm kind of wondering, with social media … And we have this desensitization to all kinds of things, all kinds of skin showing. We're used to seeing more skin from people at all different levels and places in leadership, and all of that. So I don't know exactly how that research would play out now, but I think it's interesting to think about.

Clio Cresswell, who does this talk on math and sex … It's Ted Talk, math and sex. She looks brilliant, I mean, like intellectually brilliant, in her sleeveless V-neck top in this talk. So I'm not sure I buy it or if that still applies in the same way. I don't know. I'm kind of going on a side tangent here. But isn't it interesting, this whole other topic of research and exploration? I'm really curious about how this is changing with a desensitization of what we're seeing visually over time.

But what I really mean about your audience is looking for ways to create that connection with them without being someone that you're not. So yes, we're thinking about audience now, but we're not forgetting about you. Remember, that was top of the list. If you're talking to an audience of personal trainers who are wearing high-end workout gear to this conference … I don't know. Do they wear that at their conferences? It seems like they would. You probably still want to put on some nicer clothes when you're going on the stage. But maybe it's a really nice Athleta dress or one of those really nice, higher-end, tailored-looking, but casual and comfortable dresses or it might be some nice slacks and a simple front button blouse or a dress shirt.

Even if you love to wear muumuus at home, you probably want to save that floral extravaganza for when you're hanging out with your BFFs on Sunday. Remember, this audience, they're assuming you've thought about this, that whatever you're wearing is part of the message. Unless it's so classic and so simple and kind of benign that they're still going to see it, but it's definitely not going to take a bunch of attention to try to process what it is. You either want it to enhance your message, increase connection between you and the audience, even if that means letting the audience get to know you a little bit, of course, by expressing some of your own personal style, but not taking it so far that they're distracted by it because they don't understand why you wore that particular thing for this topic area for their conference with them as the audience.

In both of these, I'm talking about just how to choose your outfit for a live event. But let's talk about video and images because, again, as I said before, if you're doing a speaking event, you are getting video and photography, correct? You're asking the people there to give you the video. You're asking if you can bring in your own videographer, or photographer, or both. You don't want to miss these opportunities to get video and images of you speaking, so you're going to have those.

There's some things to think about around what you're wearing and how it will translate into video and professional photography. For example, I learned from my client, dear friend, and brilliant filmmaker, Jane Selle Morgan of Skycar Creative, that you do not want to wear tiny patterns or stripes because they can cause this moiré effect. I hope I'm saying that right. I think that's what she said, which I had to look up to remember that fancy term. But the point is when you were a really small pattern, a small repetitive pattern, or those small stripes, on video, it kind of starts to blur together and it can actually make the watcher, the person watching that video, dizzy. So just don't do that. Don't do those tiny, repetitive patterns like that. Simple, bold colors. I'll talk more about that in a minute. So no matter how cute that summer outfit is, skip the fancy tiny patterns.

And as I said, keep it simple, bright colors, saturated colors. I found this cool article on wistia.com that it's a video production site. They're just saying like, “What should you wear on camera?” They say sapphire blue, ruby red, emerald green. Those kinds of colors translate really well on video, also independent of whatever's in the background, which is definitely something you want to be thinking about. Because even if in live and in person they can see you in those gray pants on the stage, on the video it may not show up with that black or charcoal gray background. You might sort of disappear and look like just a shirt and head walking and arms walking around, so you want to think about that, that these rich, saturated colors show through really nicely regardless of background.

They also talked about … They said, “Don't wear your retro outfit.” Because even though it's really cool and it has come back, it's going to look weird again in a few years when that decade is out of style yet again. Choose something on the classic side. Again, we don't want to remove all of your personality, but think of this as something that's going to live for a long time. Stay classic in style, even as you bring in your own personality. I'll put a link to that article so you can get all those good nuggets.

I love this New York Times article that I found about what to wear for a TED Talk. They say all kinds of fun things. For example, part of it they say don't wear stripes, complicated patterns, bright colors because a lot of those things can mess with the lights, even dangling jewelry. I've heard about people having to take off those beautiful earrings that they purchased specifically for this cool event because it can cause sound issues and that kind of thing when you're trying to get video, and when you're trying to actually put sound out into the audience. They say wear a color that contrasts with gray because of that background issue that I mentioned earlier.

In this article, they say don't wear anything too bright. I say don't over-overthink all this stuff. If you love to wear really bright colors, jewel tones or whatever, wear them. Maybe you're not going to want to go highlighter yellow or neon yellow because it'll just be distracting to look at, but wear stuff that feels good to you.

They also have this fun section in this article where they talk about geography matters. They mentioned this there's a TEDMED conference in Washington, DC, and there's also … There's one in Washington DC and one in San Francisco. They say casual dress is always encouraged. In Manhattan, dress code is comfortable jeans, sweaters, and formal is fine. Then in Monterey, similar thing. So they're saying there is this kind of casualness to TED Talks. This article is speaking specifically about TED Talks. They do make this funny reference to a TEDx event in Macatawa, which is in Holland, Michigan, and they say … I guess there they tend to be very casual. So they say, “We're interested in having you be as comfortable as possible. However, you must wear clothes.” It's a fun article, and there's lots and lots of good tips in there.

If you just want some insights, if you're speaking at a TED event, it might be even more relevant. There are differences in style between TED events and other kinds of events, so you want to come back to who is this audience, why are they gathering, where is this event being held.

Phew. There it is, an overview of how to choose what to wear for your next speaking event. I hope you find these helpful. I don't want you to overthink this, and I do want you to think about it. But I want you to think about it not from that charged place of like, “Oh my gosh. What am I going to wear? Nothing. Nothing seems right. Everything in my closet is awful. It's never going to work. I'm probably going to hate it later, and then I'll never … ” First of all, we know that our minds do that kind of thing. If your mind's doing that, it's just doing its mind thing. That's just what our brain does. Then, you can come back to this podcast episode. You can reference the transcript version that I carry, that I have on my website for every one of these podcasts. If you just want to go to certain sections, there'll be all kinds of links in there as well. Just, it's about you, it's about them, the audience, and it's about the lasting impact that you want to make through your live delivery and your ability to express yourself with freedom and ease, and also that lasting impact of your speaker reel and your photos.

Here's the heart of the heart of it. You were made for this. You know this, I know this, but your audience may or may not know this. When you choose clothes that let you and your beautiful message to shine, everyone wins. And when you love that video and those images, you share them broadly with pride, and others can see that you serve in this particular way so they can invite you onto their stages, too. It's so much easier to hire you or bring you onto their stage to speak when they have this amazing evidence of your thought leadership experience through that video and those images.

I have something extra fun for you this week. I created kind of a checklist and guide with questions to help you choose the most awesome outfit for your next speaking event. You will find that at michellebarryfranco.com/vippodcast. Go grab it now and use it often.

Spend the time, the money, the energy, the thought, and find something that you love to wear, something you're going to feel really good in. It's worth it. Then, enjoy this beautiful opportunity to serve in the most generous, gorgeous way I know of with your stories and expertise. You know I'm over here cheering you on as always because, yep, I'm going to say it again, you were made for this, my friend. I know this deep in my heart because you know this. Now, go get dolled up in just your way and go get them. See you next week.

Thanks so much for being here with me on The Thought Leadership School podcast. If you want specific and actionable guidance on how to become a recognized leader in your industry, you can download a free copy of my book, Beyond Applause: Make a Meaningful Difference Through Transformational Speaking, at speaksoitmatters.com/freebook.


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