What to wear when speaking at a conference

Marguerite MacRobert

Whether you are the keynote speaker, the MC or convenor of a panel discussion, or making a sales pitch, it’s worth thinking beyond fashion when you choose your conference outfits. After years of presenting at conferences in the UK, USA, Poland and around South Africa, here are my best tips for our Namibia Planners followers, so you can be comfortable and make a great impression.

Keep it comfortable

Presenting at a conference nearly always involves standing. Depending on your presentation style, it might also involve a little walking around, as you do when you use a smart board, whiteboard or projector screen for Powerpoint/ Keynote. You will also probably be standing around for a lot of the networking over drinks and snacks, and possibly walking between venue rooms. It makes sense to dress for comfort as well as style.

Once you know how long your slot is, you’ll have some idea what shoes you can stand in and won’t trip or topple over when walking around while not concentrating particularly on your heels. If you love your high heels, consider kitten or block heels in preference to six inch stilettos, platforms or wedges.

Clothes must also not restrict movement or be itchy. Flappy bits or belts and skirts you need to hitch and adjust will irritate you and lead to distracting body language, which spells disaster for a presentation. Even consider your underwear – undies that ride up or bra straps that slip will make you uncomfortable and also lead to odd body language moments.

Keep it appropriate

A general rule of thumb is that professional attire should not be too revealing. Wear something you can safely crouch, reach up or bend over in, if you need to pick up a fallen usb stick, get something from your briefcase or handbag, or just lean over a table to shake hands.

You don’t need to be austere or boring, and you certainly don’t need to wear Victorian polo necks and ankle-length skirts, but overly sexy or revealing are usually distracting and not appropriate in professional settings. If your blouse top button frequently pops open, take precautions with safety pins or wear a camisole or strappy top to layer your look and keep your bra and lower cleavage firmly private

Consider your audience in this regard especially. If there are many muslim colleagues or guests, for example, you might consider covering up more skin.

Consider your company image and your personal brand

If you are not sure, take a look at your company web site and look at what images they have if there are any pictures of people, and take a look at your colleagues, especially your seniors or company founders. Is your company a smart jeans and shirts kind of place or a black suit and tie place? Smart trousers or skirts and jackets? Smart trousers, polished shoes but no ties?

Also consider your personal brand – what is your unique look and your special message at this conference? Perhaps your workplace is quite formal in terms of colours, but you are the in-house designer and seen as the creative maverick. When presenting, you might consider a formal shirt or blouse and smart shoes, but in unique colours and bold prints, or with a chunky bracelet and large earrings, to emphasise your role. Basically you want how you look to reflect your professional role and the message you are presenting, so you appear coherent in how you look and what you are saying. 

Do a sound check

If you are not familiar with the venue, ask what kind of sound equipment is used. I’ve presented at a number of conferences where they have cordless mics that are mounted on your head, with kind of headband and a cheek microphone, or which clip onto your shirt lapel. What you may not know is that these also come with a cord attached to a fairly heavy battery/receiver box that has to also be clipped onto you, preferably somewhere out of sight.

If you have roomy pockets and don’t mind a bulge, then this is one solution, but the best is if you can tuck it behind you. Clipped onto a belt or your trousers or skirt waistband is ideal. This affects your hairstyle or shirt choice and your choice of trousers or skirt, and means dresses can be extremely awkward.

A neat, simple hairstyle without lots of clips, accessories or plaits is preferable if you have a headset, so there isn’t the option of it tangling up when you need to adjust it or take it off. If you have a lapel clip mic, then you need to be sure it isn’t going to weigh your shirt lapel or neckline down in a way that shows your bra or cleavage too much. If your top’s fabric is so soft that the mic clip flops to the side and can’t be secured facing up towards you to capture your voice, this is also a problem. This happened to me once, and I had to hold the tiny mic in my hand for an entire 20 minute presentation. I felt silly to say the least!

A firmer fabric button up shirt or a jacket with a fairly firm collar is ideal, and so is a top with straps or a firm collar line, provided whatever you layer over your shoulders doesn’t rub up against the mic and make irritating noises.

Consider simpler earrings and necklaces that don’t jangle and clatter as this can also get picked up by the mic. You want people to hear your message, not a miniature brass band!

Namibia Planners hope this helps you prepare for your next conference presentation with confidence. Let us know in the comments if you have more tips, or funny stories to share from your own mistakes!

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