What to wear for public speaking, in real life or onscreen
In our image-conscious age, what you wear to speak in public matters more than ever. With conferences, talks and festivals returning, the need to look good in real life and on screen, often simultaneously, means it’s more complicated than ever. Here are a few tips.
I’m not sure that master orator Cicero had which toga-and-sandal combo would look most authoritative at his company conference in mind when he said, “In an oration, as in life, nothing is harder than to determine what is appropriate.”
But his point is a good one. In our image-conscious, visual age, what you wear to speak in public matters more than ever. And with conferences, talks and festivals returning in physical and hybrid form, the need to look good in real life and on screen, often simultaneously, means it’s more complicated than ever.
Victoria Hitchcock is a fashion stylist and personal image maker based in the Bay Area of San Francisco who advises Fortune 500 executives and tech founders. Recently, several people have sought her advice on dressing again for live events.
“Many people have so much information and experience in thought leadership but they don’t know how to hone that into the perfect presentation so that you don’t lose your audience in the first minute,” Hitchcock said. She has a checklist that informs outfits: What is the venue? What is the time of year? Will you be sitting or standing? Is the light hot, is it hitting you from above? Who is moderating? Who are your peers?”
Sussing out who the audience is can be a subtle business, especially in the tech world. Hitchcock said, “Is it bitcoin, something financial? They are a bit more formal. Is it biotech? That is a much more dressed-down environment. Have you got some venture capital mixed with artificial intelligence, transportation or operations, that’s usually in between.”
She has observed that while famous tech titans are synonymous with a scruffy, ultra normcore look, she finds that “people at the mid-level, in management and decision making, are upping their game. There is no more need to wear the messy jeans, the white sneaker, the T-shirt with a ‘pi equals whatever’ symbol. It used to be that the more anti-conformist the better, and now it’s “how can you help me express who I am?”
For a business-casual look on men she recommends a polo with an open blazer and jeans, or trousers with a deconstructed jacket and button-down shirt in blue-and-white or with a textured pattern. Travel writer and influencer Travis Levius, @misterlevius, has honed a relaxed professional style and says that unless it’s a very formal event, he tends to keep it casual: “On the top it’ll be a solid-colour jumper or button-down from J.Crew, H&M or Club Monaco; on the bottom, tailored dark-coloured jeans or chinos from Levi’s or Uniqlo. I’d either pair the look with boots from Clark’s or Thursday Boot Company, or black or brown Oxford shoes.”
For women, a safe bet for a formal event is always a trouser suit, says Hitchcock. “They are really powerful, it translates as ‘I am in control but I’m comfortable.’ The blouse is key and I usually recommend something with a bit of a sheen that will reflect the light well. Rolling up your sleeves will also make you much more approachable.”
In a less corporate environment such as media, tailoring can be edgier, but going for statement oversized suits can still make the wearer look like a child trying on their parent’s clothes: New eco aware brand Another Tomorrow is a good source of relaxed but smart tailoring.
There are also technical factors to consider. Colin Heywood, managing director at Anderson & Sheppard on Savile Row, thinks that for a fairly formal environment staying neutral is advisable. “Darker colours are good, dark grey or dark blue. You can have a pattern in the fabric, quite often when you are viewed from 20 feet or so the pattern won’t be that noticeable, but if it is going to be on-screen then we would say avoid a houndstooth, or Prince of Wales or glen plaid check because the camera has difficulty with that.”
Choosing a lightweight fabric that doesn’t crease or attract too much fluff and lint is wise if you don’t want to look like a hot mess, literally. Heywood recommends tailoring designed for travel as a savvy way of choosing something that will look fresh, not crumpled.
Bespoke tailor Leonard Logsdail, who is based in New York, has made suits for TV show Succession, so he has some billionaire-appropriate tips on how to make an impression: “If you are in a group or a panel I would advocate something slightly stronger so it sets you apart. When you look at politicians and they all have a plain suit, a plain shirt and a plain tie, there isn’t anything that really sets them apart. Just don’t go over the top.”
A recurring piece of advice is not to wear anything you haven’t worn before, or at least tried on extensively at home. If you are going to rent a garment, factor in few extra days to try it out then study it under different lights to check for pitfalls that might not be instantly obvious, such as whether it clings in the wrong places, is see-through, or gapes – the latter is often a fatal flaw of a seemingly stylish wrap dress.
Helena Morrissey, financier and author of Style and Substance; a Guide for Women Who Want to Win at Work, often chooses dresses in bold colours with pockets to clip a mic on, and has even sewn on a little half belt to a favourite dress for this purpose.
There’s a reason Michelle Obama went for a softly structured fit and flare dress in her famous “we go high speech” at the 2016 Democratic National convention; they are universally flattering. An FT colleague aced the safe but chic dress for a talk at the FT Weekend Festival in Emilia Wickstead’s Jody belted shirt dress, while Massimo Dutti has a good wine coloured shirt dress which is classic but with interesting dolman sleeves.
Asking ahead about the seating arrangements on stage is something Morrissey has learned to do over years of public speaking. “Sitting on a too high stool doesn’t make you feel grounded or at home, so I have learned to ask ahead of time if I can have a different sort of chair,” she said. “We have all heard lots of technically flawless talks that have no heart, so making an emotional connection with a smile, a warm hello and an outfit that reflects your audience is a good starting place.”
By Carola Long © 2021 The Financial Times