When you speak to an audience, should you dress for yourself or the audience? Should you take the advice of those who say, “Be authentic,” or should you go by the axiom that your should dress one-half step above your audience? Well, here’s what I learned many years ago.
In my younger days, the 1980s to be exact, I had the good fortune of working at one of the world’s most recognized electronics companies.
The corporate culture back then was much different from today. If you’re old enough, you might remember that, for men, suits were a must, and white shirts and power ties were standard.
I was new to the company and wanted to meet the “players” in the area. One of these retailers was a high-end audio store located in a large college town. Every self-proclaimed audiophile in the region knew this store and most likely had shopped there at one time or another.
I called the owner and made an appointment to meet him. On the day of the meeting, I arrived early. Soon, our scheduled meeting time came and went. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, a half-hour went by. I tried to keep my cool while wondering if something came up and required the owners’ attention or if I was being “iced.”
Finally, the owner came out onto the sales floor and introduced himself. I was surprised how young he was, only seven or eight years older than I. I was also surprised when he told me he had only a few minutes to talk. In less than 15 awkward minutes, I was in my car, heading back to my office.
Over the next few weeks, I called the owner several times, but I couldn’t get him to take my call. How rude. How unprofessional.
Then one day, while speaking with a more experienced coworker, I mentioned how frustrated I was. He laughed and asked, “How were you dressed when you went to the store?”
“Well, knowing the store is high-end and sells expensive gear, I was in my finest suit and tie,” I assured him.
Again he laughed. “That’s your problem. This guy might sell high-end products, but he and his employees are laidback. He saw you as someone who was trying to impress him, a stuffy corporate guy.”
I thought back to my brief meeting with the owner. Sure enough, he had been in faded jeans and a t-shirt. So the next day, I dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, got on my motorcycle, and drove to the store.
It wasn’t long before the owner came onto the sales floor and noticed me standing there, helmet in hand. As he walked over to me, the first words out of his mouth were, “What do you ride?” Come to find out, he also rode bikes. From that point on, we developed a solid relationship.
In the end, it’s up to you to decide what’s appropriate for any given audience and occasion. For example, when speaking to a more buttoned-up group, I wear a suit, white shirt, and tie. On the other hand, if it’s a more laidback conference and the audience is wearing chinos and golf shirts, I’m in a sport jacket and either a golf shirt or button-down shirt with no tie.
When you’re speaking in front of an audience, your determining factor will always be that audience and what best helps you connect with them. Unless, of course, you’re a celebrity, where often anything goes.
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