Dress to impress

During the current period of carnival, people over the world dress up extravagantly. They wear masks and costumes to change their everyday appearance, make a statement or tell a story. The ultimate example of such dress-up story telling is probably shown in the image below: amid the great 1930s depression, attendees of the Beaux Art Ball in New York were asked to celebrate the innovative spirit that was sweeping the architectural world. Which resulted in this frivolous lineup of architects dressed up as the renowned buildings they designed.


As a public speaker, your attire can change your image or enforce your message too. Varying from casual over smart to formal, your dress code may help you to impress, to convince, or to express. Of course, the outside always counts and you’ll only get one chance to make a first impression. A smart business suit exudes confidence and success, but this doesn’t mean that you must overdress or – even worse – wear clothes that don’t fit your personality. Dress like an engineer if you are one, instead of trying to look like a corporate executive (although I can name some casually – or even sloppily – dressed men and women in this category too, inluding a famous CEO that was wearing blue jeans, a black turtleneck, and grey sneakers as his signature look). Particularly if you suffer from speaking stress, you may prefer comfortable clothing over a stiff three-piece business suit. Which doesn’t mean that you have to wear baggy trousers either.

And, most important, don’t forget that it’s your on-stage performance that counts. Dedicate your time and creativity to building your story, crafting your content, and rehearsing your presentation rather than to dressing up for the audience.

I’d like to close this post with a quote from Arthur Ashe, the only black tennis player ever to win the Wimbledon championships: “Clothes and manners do not make the man; but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.” And so it is…

Look ‘n’ feel matter – color

Color is a powerful means for presenting information. The tints you choose and the way you use them can have a strong impact on your audience. They may have special meanings in certain cultures (read e.g. the example in an earlier post about the use of red and green on the Japan stock exchange), and even have an emotional appeal (as indexed by Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.)

Emotion and perception. That’s the reason why marketers carefully pick ‘appropriate’ color schemes for their collateral and websites. Did you know that Google apparently tested 41 shades of blue to maximize the click-through rate on hyperlinks?

  • Red is a strong color, with both positive and negative meaning: love, energy, danger, … You can use it to emphasize your messages, but sometimes you better avoid it because of its negative connotation. Also note that red text is often poorly readable, both on a light and a dark background.
  • Blue expresses trust, confidence and loyalty. So it’s a perfect background or foreground for business presentations. At least if you don’t mind coming over as conservative  ̶ which is unfortunately also a synonym for boring.
  • Green represents health, nature and novelty. An ideal tint when you want to talk about the eco-friendliness of your products or the sustainability of your business.
  • Yellow stands for logic and intelligence, but also for caution and cowardice. Unless you put it on a dark background, don’t use yellow fonts.
  • Purple means creativity and innovation. That’s why e.g. Alcatel-Lucent, the company I work with, has chosen it in their logo.
  • Black is most commonly associated with power and elegance. It’s a good and neutral color for your presentations. One caution about using a black (or any other dark) background: it may cost you a lot of ink when printing out handouts of your slides.
  • White, although the opposite of black, is also a neutral shade. Personally, I prefer to work on a white background as it gives my slides a clean look, creates a feeling of open space, and combines perfectly with any other color.

Don’t feed the chameleons! Use colors vividly but wisely. Don’t mix too many of them on one single slide, and avoid improper combinations like red/green (can’t be distinguished by certain color blind people) or orange/blue (seem to vibrate against one another).


“Thrift Store Landscape With a Color Test” by Chad Wys
(paint on found print and frame, 2009)

Earlier in this post, I mentioned Plutchik’s wheel. A color wheel also helps you to understand the relationships between colors. When using colors it’s always good know the theory of primary (red, blue, and yellow), secondary (green, violet, and orange) and tertiary colors (made from combinations of then former six) and know which combinations work and which don’t. If you need some advice, there are a few great tools on the web like ColorBlender or Color Scheme Designer.

As a final note, many of the statements I made above about the use of colors in presentations are also valid for a presenter’s attire. Colors don’t make the man (or the woman), but poor choices can spoil your appearance, take away attention from your message, or even give another meaning to the things you tell.

Next week, I will talk about using images in your presentations.

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading: