Last updated on March 20th, 2019 at 12:40 pm
You’re finally realizing your big dream to be a public speaker, and you’ve landed your first major paid speaking gig.
Forget about the speech–now you’re obsessed with “what should a speaker wear?”
Let me tell you, for every hour I spend working on my speech; I spend three hours figuring out what to wear to deliver the address. Yes, I’m that kind of woman. But I think that what you wear on stage is just as important as what you have to say.
As a motivational speaker, what I wear is part of my brand. It’s part of my personality. It’s part of the package I sell.
Too many public speakers ignore the clothing part of the equation and opt for a simple “uniform” that does nothing to set them apart, but instead pushes them into a chorus line of speakers who all dress the same.
What you Wear is Part of Your Personal Brand as a Public Speaker
When I first started speaking for a living, I was advised by many other motivational speakers to “dress the part.” And apparently “the part” involved drab suits that made my butt look like two ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ jumbo pumpkins fighting for first prize at the state fair. I dressed in cheap suits (because I couldn’t afford thousand-dollar suits), sensible shoes, and wore my hair short, frosted and bluntly-cut like the other women speakers I saw. I’d look around me at speaking conferences to make sure I blended in with my peers.
Blending in is the kiss of death. People buy speakers with personality. Let your clothes show your character, not lack of it.
It took me years to learn the valuable personality lesson: blending with the crowd gets you nowhere. Finally, I cast off the suit-and-flat-shoes uniform, took off the face, and set out to be authentically me. There was one big problem–I wasn’t sure who I was. I sadly realized (in my forties) that I had never thought about what I wanted to wear, only what I thought I was supposed to wear.
I began to try out new looks; boots, hair extensions, hair dye, bling, new shoes, etc. I’m still at the phase of figuring out who I am as a reflection of my clothes and how I want you to view me. I am not looking to copy someone else’s look, but instead find my style, my brand, my personality.
You have to be willing to take risks, including with your clothing choices.
The reason so many speakers look alike is that they want to play it safe. I don’t think there’s room for safe if you’re going to soar to speaker stardom. You have to try new things, including new looks on stage. And, yes, you will make mistakes. You will look back at pictures and gasp in horror that you wore a particular outfit. You will reflect in the mirror and think you look great, and then see photos of yourself on stage and believe you looked like a clown.
I wish the mirror and pictures would agree on what I look like on stage.
If there is one thing I wish I’d done all the long, it is to take pictures of myself in different outfits. I’ve just recently started doing this, and it’s constructive. My fashionista sister appeared one day to help me go through my closet. It was our attempt at figuring out what to put together to create a funky, unusual attire to fit my personality and style. I tried on every outfit, down to the earrings, and she took my picture on my cell phone. Later, I went through the images to see which ensemble was flattering, and what garb made me race for the delete button.
Now, I have a portfolio of outfits in a photo album on my cell phone. When it’s time to go on the road, I pick my outfits from the pictures I like, and it makes packing a breeze. Whenever I have a bit of free time, I try on a different outfit, and I have my husband take a photo of me.
Break Clothing Rules, but Don’t Appear Careless
I think there’s room for almost any outfit you can imagine. Even jeans. I don’t think you have to look like a walking magazine ad, but I don’t think there’s room for messy or careless. And that should be your guide. If you wear jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt and flip-flops, then you are telling your audience that you don’t care enough about them to bother. That is, unless, you’re speaking to a college crowd, and even then I would hesitate to dress like them.
Keep your audience and your message in mind.
I also think that you have to consider your message and your audience. If you are a financial planner, you may want your outfit to speak more credibility and sensibility over personality. I would be suspicious of a financial planner who arrives dressed like Elton John. I think if you’re talking to a group of people struggling financially, you might not want to dress wearing diamonds and Dior.
If your dream is to be a comedy motivational speaker like me, I think you have a pass (if not an obligation) to dress for fun. I mean for you to step out of your comfort zone. What kind of message do I send if I don’t walk my talk and climb out of my comfort zone with the way I dress?
It’s not just on stage but in your headshots where your outfit has selling potential.
Most of the selling in my business model happens before prospective clients pick up the phone to call me. It happens when they find me online and go to my website. They don’t just visit my site to see what I do and how I do it. They visit to meet me. It’s my chance to sell my personality, which is as essential as my message. So why make my headshot look like a church directory picture or the latest glamour shot?
Let your pictures show your personality. Let them sing fun. Your photographs have a powerful influence on the buyer. When I create my brand headshots (and website material), I avoid seeing “realtor headshot” but instead see “album cover.” I am a performer more than a businesswoman. And I believe that businesswomen can (and should) dare to dress differently. Shouldn’t speakers break the rules?
Continue your brand everywhere.
I’ve seen celebrities in their free time who look like the walking dead in public. And that’s fine. It’s none of my business. But when I travel, I meet a lot of people who have the potential to become clients. For this reason, I reflect my brand everywhere I go.
I wasn’t always like this. One morning as a new mom, I went to the local mall still in my pajamas with the lopsided belief I couldn’t possibly run into anyone important. Wouldn’t you know, someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “Aren’t you that speaker we hired for our staff event last year?” Talk about mortified! I looked like one of those black and white ‘most wanted’ images you find on the post office wall. I’m sure the woman (my client) didn’t judge me for my appearance. At least not consciously. But my brand was affected nonetheless.
Now, every time I walk out into the world, I wear my brand–even when I’m confident I won’t run into one single human being. You never know when someone standing behind you in line can refer you or book you to speak. Don’t waste any public opportunity. Sure, it’s not always the easy option, but I don’t get paid for easy.
Don’t believe the world’s lie that you have to be skinny to be on stage, or that you have to be pretty to have an impact as a public speaker. Don’t buy into the belief that unattractive people don’t belong in the spotlight. Imagine every person you respect and value in this world; I would venture a guess that your feelings about them are not based on how skinny they are.
Sure, some speakers might have an edge because they have that “certain look” a particular type of buyer seeks. But “the look” won’t get them very far in the world of public speakers, or will they last very long. It’s better to have talent, a powerful message, and a good heart over a Barbie doll look.
Yes, I spend a lot of time working on my look. I’m a fanatic for hair and makeup products, but I know that’s not why I get hired to speak. It’s not why I get standing ovations. And it’s not why I get bookings over and over. I am a professional. I work hard to give great speeches.
Your Audience is More Concerned with What You Say Over What You’re Wearing
Don’t stress too much about what you wear. Your audience is more concerned with what you have to say. Sure, people may notice a wrinkle in your suit. They may not like your shoes or think your hair is tacky. But at the end of the event, they should be focused on your message. If they go away thinking only about your appearance, then you didn’t have a compelling enough message for them to focus on after you’ve exited the building.
I have worn plenty of horrendous outfits that still ended with me receiving a standing ovation.
You may decide at the end of the day, what you as a motivational speaker should wear is a suit and sensible shoes. And that’s fine. It’s your choice. Your look. That’s the point. Be you. It’s the only title role that’s not taken.
Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, motivational speaker, published author and TV personality who is passionate about helping women harness the power of their stories to connect, influence, and get the results they dream of accomplishing. Laughing the whole way, Kelly teaches women how to master the art of connection through the power of strategic storytelling. You can find her on The Fashion Hero show airing Fall of 2017 on Amazon Prime or on her website MotivationalSpeakerKellySwanson.com.
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