During the coffee break of one conference I attended, whispers and giggles could be heard within the conversations of small huddles of delegates. Without asking, I knew what they were all talking about because our little group were talking about the same thing.
The presenter that had just been speaking had given an excellent talk, but it seemed that the only thing that we had remembered was his dress and grooming, or lack of it. Without exaggerating, this man was wearing a suit that was so crumpled it looked like rags. There wasn't a section in it that was not badly creased. If that wasn't bad enough there was a large stain on his tie, apparently from something he had spilled earlier in the day. He truly looked a mess, and he was oblivious to this fact.
While that example was somewhat extreme, poor dress and grooming is not uncommon, and the example demonstrates the point that audiences notice what we are wearing, and they judge us accordingly. It's amazing what people will conclude about us from this aspect alone before we utter a word. Interestingly, the tendency is also to judge the company or organisation we are representing in the same way. In the example just mentioned, our little group included negative comments about the company the presenter was from, because he was rightly seen as a representative of that company. Imagine that - one person has the power to convey a positive or negative image of the company they work for.
The importance of your appearance does not just relate to your clothes being clean. The last thing you want as a public speaker in any circumstance is for your clothes to out stage you. The purpose of the audience being there is to listen and learn, not to be distracted by your appearance. Bear in mind that this can apply to both extremes of the appearance spectrum. Just as dirty, creased and smelly clothes leave a bad impression, someone who goes overboard with cutting edge or flamboyant fashion can just as easily leave a bad impression. Why? Once again, the audience will be focusing on and talking about the unusual clothes rather than the content of the presentation.
The best advice for what to wear is to make it suitable for the occasion. In a fairly informal setting it might be appropriate to dress in a smart casual style - a tie or suit may be unnecessary. In a high profile banking meeting, it would be normal to dress in a high quality suit, with shirt and tie. If in doubt, check with the organisers to confirm the dress code of presenters, and if there is still any doubt, take some alternative clothes with you, just in case.
It should also be noted that what you wear should be acceptable to the geographical locale. Different regions of the country and certainly different countries have different customs as to what is considered proper dress. In some warm climates a tie would be deemed ridiculous, in others it is considered essential. Do your research about local customs, and prepare accordingly.
Avoid any extremes in what you wear, including jewellery and accessories. It's good advice not to be the first one into a fashion, or the last one out of it! We are all affected by fashion to some degree, and some people live for buying new outfits, but in the public speaking environment, unless you are deliberately trying to get a reaction from your clothes as part of your presentation, don't try and stand out by what you wear. For example, in some there has been a recent trend to wear extremely bright coloured suits, almost to the point of being fluorescent. The trouble is that speakers who wear that type of clothing lose credibility when they are trying to speak on a serious subject.
We mentioned accessories too. On one occasion, a speaker was seen wearing an extremely expensive gold watch, as well as having numerous large rings on his fingers. Perhaps unwittingly (or maybe not), he held his hands in such a way so that everyone noticed his 'treasure'. As it happened, not only did everyone notice the jewellery but every time it got caught in the focus of the spotlights someone in the audience would be temporarily blinded by the glare bouncing back off the rings. It was not very considerate of the speaker, who was so full of his own self importance that he would probably not have cared about the distraction even if he had been told. If you wear a lot of jewellery, don't fall into the same trap!
Your shoes speak volumes about you. It's often been said that the cleanliness of a persons shoes directly relates to their overall cleanliness and personality. It seems to make sense that someone with scruffy, dirty shoes lacks interest in their appearance, and perhaps that attitude is reflected in other areas of their work. On the other hand, someone who takes the trouble to ensure their shoes are polished and well kept obviously takes a pride in their overall appearance.
Let's briefly talk about personal hygiene. To be presentable, you need to be free from body odours, with clean teeth and fingernails. Your hair should be neatly combed, and if you normally shave, you should be clean shaven. Although this sounds obvious to most people, sadly it's a real problem amongst many public speakers. Yes, many. An audience member sitting in the front row can see the presenter's teeth and fingernails, and they can even tell if the presenter has a problem with body odour. In a more confined environment it is even more noticeable. Wouldn't it be terrible if your message was rejected because of poor hygiene? It happens all the time.
Aftershave or cologne can be used, but in moderation. It's a subtle factor that should add to your professional image, not overwhelm the audience. Some people have allergies to colognes.
If a suit is appropriate, a high quality suit, the best you can afford will give you more confidence and will make you appear more professional to the audience. In choosing a tie, be guided by what you see other successful people wear, rather than opting for that Simpson's cartoon tie, just because it was a gift.
Paul Daniels is often described as The Johnny Carson of England. In his home country he is a household name due to his more than 20 years of prime-time TV shows that have been broadcast to 41 countries. Paul's course: The Stress Free Guide To Public Speaking and Presentations is the International best selling speaking course - visit: http://www.stressfreepublicspeaking.com for more information.