The year: 2014. The location: an amphitheater-style classroom in Madrid. I was staring at business suits, ties and designer blouses. 70 eyes were staring at me. The business development and sales team of the renowned IESE Business School had invited me to give a half-day lecture on slide presentations. Just when I was about to start, the door opened in the back of the room. A charismatic man in his fifties with silver hair and a tailor-made suit entered the room. I looked at his eyes and saw… surprise.
Are clothes really that important when you’re a public speaker? Do clothes really make a difference? Do clothes really make the speaker?
The omnipresent necessity to present in suit and tie (this article focuses on the male perspective) reminds me of one of my favorite shows when I was at University – Star Trek The Next Generation. In that show one of the highlights were the Borg. The Borg are part organic and part artificial beings. They assimilate almost everyone they come in contact with. One of my favorite lines is, We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
For me, three aspects are key when it comes to the public speaking dress code.
First, feel comfortable. If you’re a banker or a business consultant or an insurance broker and all you wear is suit and tie, day in, day out, then don’t change your style once you have to give an important presentation. But – if you’re a start-up guy, and all you wear is a pair of jeans and sneakers, don’t change your style either. You’d feel very uncomfortable.
Second, be authentic. The number one value of a speaker is authenticity. That’s what an audience values more than anything else – at least, according to my experience based on moderated evaluations of more than 6,400 speeches. I played soccer in clubs for more than 20 years. When I give my keynote speech The ball must go in!, I wear a jersey of the German football team. Am I not authentic? When I give a training speech to 250 executives and I wear what I wear in all my trainings – shirt, jeans and humbly posh sneakers -, am I not authentic?
Third, when you wear a suit, no tie! I had to wear suit and tie for 3,073 days of my professional career. Ties can look very good on you. The problem with ties in public speaking is that they build a subtle barrier between the speaker and the audience. Public speaking is about informing, entertaining, persuading or inspiring your audience. But – it’s also – and always – about connection. A tie conveys closeness and distance, that’s why it’s called tied up. Without a tie you’re more open, transparent, approachable. Never underestimate the power of subconsciousness in public speaking. Every single detail matters.
As a professional speaker, feeling comfortable and being authentic are more important to me than being a Borg. In 2014, in that amphitheater-style classroom in Madrid I wore a shirt, jeans and humbly posh sneakers. Later that day I had lunch with the IESE people. Guess who was sitting next to me – the charismatic man in his fifties with silver hair and a tailor-made suit. After a sip of Rioja he looked at me and said, When I entered the room this morning and I saw you in your shirt, jeans and sneakers, I thought, ‘He must be good’.