When it comes to public speaking, success has as much to do with your personal brand style as it does with content of the speech.
When you’re up at the podium, your words aren’t the only part of your speech being judged by the audience. Your attire speaks as loudly as anything you say—and it speaks the loudest when your style is off the mark.
Fredrik Elklund, NYC real estate broker and Bravo TV reality star of Million Dollar Listing, doesn’t underestimate the importance of appearances. “I think 10 percent of your income should go to clothing,” he says.
While everyone may not have the finances to follow Elklund’s commitment to clothing, his sentiment still holds true. In other words, ensure your message rings loud and clear by tailoring your outfit appropriately to the event and the audience.
Follow this advice to ensure that your audience remains rapt with attention—not distracted by your gauche ensemble.
1. Shoot for above average
When selecting your outfit, keep this rule of thumb in mind: dress as well, or slightly better, than your audience. Essentially, you need to know your attendees. Dress too nicely and you’ll seem foolish—one wouldn’t deign to address a punk rock festival dressed in a tuxedo. But if you dress too casually, on the other hand, you risk coming off as amateur and unauthoritative.
That being said, your attire should stay true to your personal brand. A dry financier benefits from wearing an expensive suit, while the creative CEO of a startup might seem more at home in trendy specs and a polo t-shirt.
2. Stand out from the stage
When you select an outfit for a public speaking engagement you have more than yourself and your audience to consider. The environment of the venue is also worth a second thought. After all, that bombshell red dress won’t look as good if it’s clashing with the scarlet backdrop behind you.
And, if you’re going to be televised, keep this in mind: over the airwaves, shades of red tend to bleed and patterns take on a mind of their own. So, whatever shade you go with, be sure to choose something that suits you and the stage.
3. Plan—and ask—ahead
Many style gaffes stem from a lack of preparation. Avoid the ultimate nightmare of speaking in your metaphorical underpants. Do your research and pre-plan your outfit.
Don’t hesitate to ask event planners about the dress code. Find out whether there are specific requirements for men and women in advance. In addition to appropriateness, take the physical requirements of your speech into account. If you plan on pacing the stage, for example, sky-high heels may not be the best choice.
4. Give yourself attire options
If you’re traveling, pack multiple outfits and accessories with varying degrees of formalness. Conference events in particular can range from highly formal to extremely casual.
Even worse than being forced to don an inappropriate outfit, however, is being stranded without an outfit at all. It’s best to pack your essential attire in a carry-on bag as opposed to checked luggage to avoid the risk of losing your precious cargo in transit.
5. Dress to forget
Your speaking garb should allow you to act and feel your best. It should be the last thing on your mind when you take the stage. Feeling comfortable is even more important than color choices and heel height. With the right outfit, you’ll be free to deliver your speech with enthusiasm and gesticulate with wild passion.
As Forbes contributor Nick Morgan notes, sweep your hair away from your face to avoid fiddling, and forget any accessories that may draw you or your audience away from the substance of the speech. ID badges, for instance, can serve as a distraction, reflecting the glare of the stage lights.
Now’s your chance to make the impression of a lifetime, so make sure that your clothing lets you do the talking—and not the other way around.
This article has been edited.
Ken Sterling is the Chief Marketing Officer at BigSpeak Speakers’ bureau – the leading keynote and business speakers bureau in the world. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California and an MBA from Babson College. Ken teaches Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Strategy at UC Santa Barbara. He is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, business consultant and sales & marketing expert. Connect with @bigspeak on Twitter.