How does your image affect your presentation success?

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If wrinkles must be written upon our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should not grow old.
— James A. Garfield

First Impressions

Before you even open your mouth, the audience will begin to make judgements about you. Their first impressions of you are based on your image.

Personal appearance is a sensitive issue for most people. You might say, "If the content of my presentation is good, my style is professional and effective, my personal appearance should not matter". True, you should not try to win over your audience with your appearance - you are trying to give a professional presentation, not a glitzy performance.

So, instead of thinking about personal appearance as impressing the audience, think of it as an important key to not distracting them. Think about whether having four rings on each finger will distract the audience, or whether a multi-coloured fluorescent tie will divert attention from your message.

What to wear

There are various opinions on how presenters should dress. The truth is, as fashion changes, so do the rules about appropriate clothes for presenters. For example, big shoulder pads were standard 'power-wear' for women in the 1980s. By the 1990s, shoulder pads were less common. Scarves come in and out of fashion, as do pinstripe suits. 

The one rule that does not change is that a presenter should always be neat and well groomed. This means neat and manicured nails, polished shoes, tidy hair, stockings without ladders, straight ties and wrinkle-free shirts. Both men and women should be careful that their clothes are not too small, or too big.

As a rule, err on the side of discretion and modesty. Loud, flashy colours and revealing clothing will detract from the credibility of both male and female presenters.

To ensure that your wardrobe is not giving you a stale image, ask a trustworthy friend to comment on your wardrobe. However, do not get angry if they suggest that you need a change.

A good way to determine how to dress appropriately is to take note of what the people who are senior to you at work wear. If you want to move up the corporate ladder, dress like you belong on the next tier. You do not necessarily have to spend a lot of money. You can buy good quality clothes on sale, or you can buy quality items, but less of them.

Dress for Success

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One final word of advice about clothing is to consider keeping a spare change of clothes in your office or carry a spare set with you. Not long ago, we saw a presenter spill a super-sized mug of coffee straight down her white blouse, moments before taking the stage. Without a spare set of clothes, she had little choice but to take the stage in a woolly winter coat. The audience members, all of whom were wearing short sleeves, could not understand why she was dressed for sub-zero temperatures.

More than clothes

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Apart from clothes, other aspects of your physical appearance send signals to your audience. If you are tired and red-eyed, your audience will have the same response to your message. 

Body language also plays a large role in your image. Your stance, for example, will tell the audience a lot about you. Your stance can be influenced by the physical environment, such as a lectern, but don't let this be an excuse for poor posture. It is best to stand straight, make open gestures with your arms and hands, and look happy and interested in both your message and your audience.