What to wear for a presentation: A style guide

How to dress for a presentation

There are two things in professional life sure to make people cringe… 1) public speaking and 2) figuring out how to dress for that speech. I have good news. Neither is as onerous as you might think! You just need the golden rules and a few insider tips. So, allow this former news anchor to help you out. I’m going to walk you through my public appearance playbook, using my good friend Katie Cramer Brownell as an illustration. She came to me wondering what to wear for a presentation because she’d be speaking next to a former first lady! Ups the pressure a bit, right?

To begin, I need to tell you a bit more about Katie. Purdue University asked her to moderate a high profile campus talk with Laura Bush and her daughters, Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.

My pal is a published author and a rock star history professor, so the public speaking aspect wasn’t worrying her. It was simply the fashion. As she explains it, dressing for a conference or class lecture is one thing; dressing for an on-stage talk in front of thousands is something else entirely. So, let’s go through the most important considerations… AND what to do once you get on stage.

What to wear for a presentation

What to wear for a presentation: Initial Questions

Consider your audience

The general rule of thumb is to dress as well or slightly better than your audience. You want to look polished and professional, while still connecting/relating to those in the room. For example, if your audience is in jeans and sweaters, a pencil skirt and sweater is a safe bet. If they’re in business casual, step up your game with an elegant sheath dress. Your attire should reflect you and your brand. As a political historian, Katie wanted to project a classic, yet scholarly vibe.

Consider the venue

Can you get a look at the stage or presentation area ahead of time? What colors dominate? Will you be sitting or standing? You want your outfit to “pop” on stage, while also complementing your surroundings. Wear red dress on a red chair and you’ll either clash or do a disappearing act. Katie chose navy since she would be sitting on a white chair.

Consider your guests 

What will they be wearing? If you have an opportunity to ask, do it! There’s nothing worse than an unexpected “who wore it better” situation. Furthermore, you need to think about your sartorial messaging. Inadvertently your color choices could be carrying a political message. People tend to associate blue and red with political parties. (Ever wonder why news anchors wear so much purple on election night? As ridiculous as it sounds, we don’t want our clothing to appear partisan.)

What to wear for a presentation

What to wear for a presentation: Figure Flattery

Dressing for a presentation or an on-stage/televised event is vastly different from dressing for a fun occasion or a party. You need your clothing to be timeless, not trendy. Public events are not the time to go out on a limb and be experimental (unless you’re in the fashion industry). Look for garments in classic, tailored shapes like Katie’s navy dress from MM.LaFleur. You want your outfit to skim, not cling to your body. From a distance, loose, draping styles and heavily embellished, ruffled pieces look fussy and add weight.

Do a sit/stand/move test. Look in the mirror or have a trusted friend examine how your garment behaves when you are changing positions.

  • Are there odd wrinkles, underwear/bra lines?
  • Does the hem line get too short when you sit?
  • Does your movement feel too constricted?

Helpful hints

  • Try jewel tones: Unsure about colors? These shades are universally flattering and will give you a glow.
  • Skip prints: Opt for richly colored solids.
  • Avoid sleeveless: This style is popular, but tough to wear. It has a tendency to make arms look larger than they really are.
  • Go 3/4: This sleeve length offers a slimming effect by drawing attention to narrow wrists.
  • Get the hemline right. The most universally flattering skirt/dress length is just below or at the knee. If you’re petite, it is slightly above the knee.
  • Pick a pointed pump: Wear a pointed toe nude pump or black heel a/ matching tights. This will visually lengthen your leg line and make you look taller.
  • Keep jewelry simple: Stick to one statement piece. If you have a higher neckline and are wearing your hair down, a necklace is usually a great choice.

Brand name garments

Amazon picks under $40

What to wear for a presentation: On-stage Habits

Once you get on stage, you need to remember your audience. This means several things. First, you want to draw them into your conversation with your body language. For instance, when you are speaking to an on-stage guest, be sure to keep your body “open” to the audience. It might feel more natural to face the person you are talking with directly, but that will close off the viewers. Instead, try to maintain a 3/4 angle with your body and remember to look at the audience occasionally as you pose your questions.

Also, be mindful of where your hair is hanging. Don’t let it obscure your face, especially on the side that is facing the audience. Either curl it away from your face or tuck it behind an ear.

If you are seated, keep your legs crossed at the ankle or together/comfortably slanted. Crossing at the knee is okay too, provided your skirt or dress is long enough. (You’d be surprised how high hem lines can creep up when you sit.) Think about your posture and remain as upright as possible, leaning ever-so-slightly forward. This body language will make you appear engaged and interested in the conversation.

Finally, don’t be afraid to talk with your hands. It’s a natural movement and will help you sound at ease as well.

Professional dress for a presentation

My friend Katie might have been a bit nervous about interviewing a former first lady, but she hit it out of the park! She led the Purdue community through an enlightening conversation, while looking polished, poised and professional.

Do you have a speaking engagement coming up? Are you wondering what to wear for a presentation? Katie’s event may have been high-profile, but the wardrobe tips and tricks she used can be applied in any workplace or scholarly setting. We covered a lot of ground in this post, so please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. You can also shoot me an email (anchoredinelegance.com). Have a great weekend friends!



  1. 35 life lessons at 35 - Anchored In Elegance | 5th Dec 18

    […] get hung up on clothing sizes. Sizes fluctuate wildly from brand to brand. Always bring multiple sizes into the fitting […]

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *