November 1, 2010

Who let my mom in? Or, Don't guess when you dress

Have you ever walked into a room and immediately felt out of place? For whatever reason, you just didn't belong? I experienced this a few days ago, and it reminded me of the necessity of doing your research before a presentation.

No, thank goodness, this experience didn't take place at a speaking engagement. I'm much better at planning for those occasions than I apparently am when going out to a restaurant/bar for a networking meeting.

I don't normally care that much if I'm not dressed like everyone else. After all, I'm an individual, and I'm happy to stand out in a crowd. In a good way.

But Thursday evening at about 5:20 p.m., I arrived at Blush restaurant in white seersucker cropped pants, a white button-down shirt, and a gray tank top, and was greeted at the entrance by two barely twenty-somethings in black nightclub attire.

So, I'm dressed to read the paper with my coffee and pastry at Peet's on a Sunday morning, and everyone else in the place is in black minis and four-inch heels. Um... oh.

It wouldn't have bothered me so much, but I was early for the networking event, as I was hosting it, and sitting on a patio sofa sipping a sangria by myself for a good ten minutes. I could sense the staff and customers eying me and wondering, "Who let my mom in?"

Soon enough, my fellow Santa Barbara Female Entrepreneurs began to arrive, and while every single one of them looked infinitely hipper than I did, I started to feel a lot less like I was wearing a conehead.

What does this have to do with presentations again? Oh yeah: Make sure you know who is in the audience. Not just in how you dress (you might be significantly older or younger, or of a significantly different cultural background, for example, and these situations come with their own research requirements), but this is one situation where not fitting in with the group will not only be obvious and make you feel awkward, but might confuse the audience as well.

Will the audience be in suits? Don't show up in resortwear. This is a given. However, sometimes we forget that we can over-dress for a presentation just as easily as under-dress. Perhaps your audience is on a retreat at a resort and they ARE wearing resortwear. A suit is going to be superfluous and make you seem overly stiff and formal. Go business casual and meet them in the middle. Even better, talk to the organizer specifically about how they would like you to dress. There can be no confusion if you address the question directly.

I've given corporate trainings where some audience members were in baggy t-shirts and shorts and others were dressed up. I've coached one group where their CEO insisted they put on suits because they would be practicing public speaking and he wanted them to be fully in character. Other audiences have worn resortwear, polo shirts, cashmere and pearls, and student chic.

"Fitting in" doesn't mean you have to look or be exactly like your audience. You can still be your unique self with your own unique style. However, if you want to avoid feeling awkward and out of place, which will certainly interfere with your comfort level while speaking, do your research and find out who your audience is and what they're all about before you decide what to wear.

I'm pretty good at wearing the right thing to my speaking engagements. Now I just have to apply that skill to my social engagements. Ooops. Share your stories of sartorial mistakes in the comments!

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