Public Speaking Attire: Do’s and Don’ts

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What is appropriate attire to wear when presenting? What are some things you should consider when choosing what to wear for a speech?

What you wear on stage sets the tone for your talk before a single word comes out of your mouth. When putting your speech outfit together, consider what impression it confers but don’t forget the practical concerns such as where your microphone will go.

Here are some tips for choosing your public speaking attire.


Your attire is an important contributing factor to the audience’s first impression of you. Anderson points out that wardrobe is one factor of your speech that is completely within your control and that you can decide as far in advance as you want. 

In this section, Anderson hands the “mic” to TED’s content director, Kelly Stoetzel, because he admits that he’s not an expert on wardrobe decisions. (Shortform note: In May of 2021, Stoetzel left TED after 17 years there. She’s now an executive for Clubhouse, a social media app based on voice.) 

As content director, Stoetzel sent wardrobe recommendations to all of the TED speakers. We have distilled her advice into seven rules for choosing your public speaking attire.

7 Rules for Your Performance Wardrobe

  1. Above all, dress in something that makes you feel great. This means something that is physically comfortable and also makes you feel confident. This is not the time to try out a new style—you want to feel like the best version of yourself. 
  2. Dress slightly more formally than the audience. Before speaking, find out how the audience will be dressing. Are you speaking at a black-tie event or will the audience be in shorts and t-shirts? You don’t want to look overly casual, or as if you’re trying too hard, so a good rule of thumb is to be slightly more dressed up than your audience.
  3. Avoid accessories that make noise. Jangly bracelets, dangling earrings, and high heels or boots may not seem loud in a normal setting, but a microphone will amplify them. Even if you’re speaking to a smaller group without a mic, any extra noise is going to distract the audience from your speaking.
  4. Avoid black, white, and small patterns if the speech is being video recorded. On video, bright white clothes will blow out the shot, jet black clothing make you look like a “talking head,” and small patterns create a distracting shimmer effect. Stoetzel says bold, solid colors almost always work well.
  5. Consider where your microphone will go. Are you going to have a microphone clipped to your lapel, over the ear, or on your waistband? Ask the coordinator so you can plan your outfit accordingly.
  6. Practice your speech in the outfit. An outfit might be great in theory, but you won’t know if it’s good for your talk until you move around in it. Wear the exact outfit, down to the undergarments, to pinpoint any problems you might run into on the day of your talk.
  7. If you’re traveling, bring a clothes steamer. Showing up to your speech in wrinkled clothes is unacceptable—the audience will get an immediate impression that you either don’t care about the event or didn’t plan properly. Hotel irons are unpredictable, so Stoetzel recommends you travel with a small clothes steamer.
Breaking Down First Impressions

Wardrobe is crucial because numerous scientific studies have concluded that people make judgments about others within milliseconds of looking at them. In less than a second, we decide whether a person is trustworthy, promiscuous, intelligent, adventurous, and so on. How is it possible to make a judgment in less time than it takes to explain it?

Some of these impressions are explicit, and some are implicit. Explicit impressions are judgments that we make based on what we consciously believe. For example, if you believe that trustworthy people have good jobs, a man in a suit will likely appear to you as trustworthy. While the judgment is instantaneous, you can easily explain why you think what you do. 

Implicit impressions are judgments made on a subconscious level. They are not easily explained, and they may even contradict what you consciously believe. Often, this is where racial and gender biases reside. Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveals your hidden biases by measuring your reaction time while you sort words like “black” and “honest” into categories. 

Whether or not first impressions are accurate, they are taking place—at instantaneous speed. It’s worth taking the time to think about the message your wardrobe is sending the moment you step in front of your audience.
Preventing and Recovering From Wardrobe Malfunctions

In addition to Kelly Stoetzel’s advice, there are a few actions you can take to prevent wardrobe malfunctions:
– Bring a backup outfit in case something goes wrong with your first choice.
– Keep a Tide instant stain removing pen in your bag to remove small stains.
– Carry a travel-size sewing kit to repair loose buttons. Be sure that it includes tiny scissors to cut loose threads.

Even if you follow these tips, nothing is guaranteed—so what do you do if your outfit experiences a sudden stain? Or rip? Or a button falls off? Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman offers advice for handling wardrobe crises like a pro:

Laugh—if it comes naturally. Forced laughter will make everyone feel uncomfortable, but if your natural instinct is to poke fun at the situation, it will lighten the mood. 

Acknowledge the snafu. It’s very difficult to focus on what someone is saying when you’re wondering if they know about the run in their stocking, or the stain on their tie. If you want your audience to give you their full attention, acknowledge the problem from the beginning so everyone can move on.

Don’t post it online. Even if you think the situation is funny now, you don’t want a momentary mistake to live in infamy on the internet.

Accept the situation and move on. You can choose to let this slipup derail your speech, or you can quickly accept that the situation isn’t perfect and still deliver an impactful talk.
Public Speaking Attire: Do’s and Don’ts

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chris Anderson's "TED Talks" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full TED Talks summary :

  • A nuts-and-bolts guide to public speaking that takes you from the initial idea to your final bow
  • TED curator Chris Anderson's public speaking advice on everything from scripting to wardrobe
  • A comparison of Anderson's advice to that of other public speaking experts

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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