What shouldn’t you wear?

By Laura Bergells on

“What should I wear?” I asked the event organizer. We just agreed that I would speak at her winter event.

She glanced up and down at me.

“What you’re wearing now is fine. We’re a very casual business.”

I was wearing dark jeans, fitted t-shirt, and blazer. So was she.

In the olden days, an oft-repeated business maxim was always to dress professionally for a professional engagement. Suit, tie, button-down shirt. Well, you can throw out this rule, pronto.

Fellow presenter Rich Hopkins of Speak and Deliver fame wondered in a Facebook comment today if the days of wearing suits are over. He noticed that two speakers at a Toastmaster’s convention weren’t wearing suits.

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Dressing too far above the audience can be just as off-putting as dressing too far below. You might stand a better chance of connecting with your audience by matching their preferred style.

Some businesses are casual. Some are business-casual. Some present themselves as very buttoned-down and professional. So what should the savvy presenter wear?

Don’t guess. Don’t wring your hands. Just ask.

Ask the event coordinator. In my experience, they are always 100% happy to tell you how to dress. And they have always been exceptionally accurate in their assessment. I have yet to show up to a scheduled performance thinking: “Wow, the event organizer really steered me wrong. I look woefully out of touch.”

It makes sense. If I look bad, the organizer looks bad.

Starting today, I’m formalizing my approach to the “what to wear” dilemma. Since dress codes are all over the map, I’m adding the following checklist to my standard speaker agreement: Why “other”? There are exceptions, of course. It might be entirely appropriate to dress like an astronaut for an audience of tweedy academics if you’re discussing your recent space shuttle mission. Sometimes, the content of the speech requires more “costume” than “clothing”.

What’s your approach for today’s “what the blazes do I wear?” question?

And perhaps a better question: what should a business presenter absolutely NOT wear?

(I’ll put “message T-shirts” at the top of my “what not to wear” list! What about you?)