2018 Update: We still stand by this advice for what to wear for a presentation or TV appearance — but you may also want to check out our most recent discussion on what to wear for public speaking.
What should you wear when you’re the star of a corporate presentation, or making a TV appearance for something job-related? This can be a bit different than what to wear for a conference or for interview attire, to say the least, and while we’ve talked about HD makeup for video interviews, we’ve never answered this specific question. So I’ve brought back Sally McGraw, the blogger extraordinaire behind Already Pretty, who does regular TV appearances — she’s guest posted before for us on power dressing for yourself, as well as letting us excerpt her book, Already Pretty: Learning to Love Your Body by Learning to Dress it Well. Welcome back, Sal! – Kat.
I’m a ham. Happy to admit it. I landed my first lead role in a play at the ripe old age of 10 and have been performing onstage ever since. I may have shifted from drama to music and now to television appearances and lectures, but it’s all performance-related and even after all these years I still get a little jittery every time I walk onstage.
So I know from personal experience how important it is to nail my look before the audience begins to applaud or the camera turns my way. I want to be totally focused on my message and avoid fidgeting and fussing with my outfit at all costs. And, of course, I want to look my best. Here are some guidelines to help you look your best before an audience:
What to Wear For a TV Appearance
Some TV spots will be filmed on location or outside, others in a studio, so it can be difficult to generalize … but allow me to generalize anyway.
Do a touch more makeup than usual, but just a touch: Lights and cameras can be harsh on many complexions, but we are also living in an HD world, friends, so no need to apply with a trowel. I recommend using something to even out your complexion – be it foundation, BB/CC cream, or tinted moisturizer – as well as undereye concealer and powder to lighten and brighten. If you wear these daily, apply as usual and don’t add extra layers or a bunch of bronzer – better to look a little washed-out than overly made-up. Blush will prevent you from looking ill, so do include it. Sweep on a tiny bit more than usual, but make sure it’s well blended and not too streaky or obvious. Shadow, eyeliner, and mascara will make your eyes pop, but sticking to neutrals and smoky colors is wise since bright eye makeup can be distracting. Definitely add lip color but avoid super-bright and super-dark shades like fiery reds and deep purples. Instead try pinks, berries, and dusty corals, or anything that is just a bit brighter or darker than your natural lip color.
Clean lines read best: Anything with lots of ruffles, embellishment, or volume will likely look a bit messy. Blazers are better than cardigans; ponte is better than fluid jersey. Structured garments with clean lines will make you appear professional and pulled-together. Do your best to be wrinkle-free, but understand that you’ll be moving around and some creases are totally natural.
Jewel tones are always a good idea: This palette works for virtually all skin tones from pale to dark brown and reads beautifully on camera. Jewel tones are rich without being bright and add color without being overbearing. And you can do multiple jewel tones in a single outfit! Find the shade that works best for your complexion and wear it next to your face, ideally in a solid. If you want to add a neutral to the mix, go for gray.
Avoid small, regular patterns: Although issues with moiré are more common in still photography, tiny, regularly patterned clothing can be a little dizzying onscreen, especially black and white. I generally prefer solids for television, but if you opt for a pattern, try for a medium-sized one and ideally one with blurred edges, a watercolor feel, or an abstract design. This creates a more natural overall look.
Black and white sparingly: Neither is particularly flattering for most complexions, and both can cause odd contrast issues with certain camera equipment. Black can work in a skirt or pant, but try for jewel tones and grays instead if you can.
Minimal accessories: Long, dangly earrings and clattering bangles can be very distracting, as can oversized scarves, wild hosiery, and piles of necklaces. Make one accessory your focal point and keep others to a minimum. Feel free to do a scarf or statement necklace, but pair with studs and a simple watch or bracelet. The fewer shiny objects and moving parts, the better.
What to Wear for a Presentation or Seminar
My guidelines are mostly the same for presenting to a live audience instead of speaking on-camera, but there are a few important differences to note:
Pattern in small doses: If you’re pacing back and forth on a large stage in front of dozens of people, an outfit that is mainly solids will be less distracting than one with gobs of prints. Patterned shoes or a scarf will work beautifully, as will a patterned blouse peeking out from a suit jacket. But now is not the time to show off your print-mixing prowess.
Bolder accessories can work: Don’t go overboard, but you can be a bit more adventurous than you would be on-camera, especially if your audience is both large and physically distanced from you. Statement necklaces are great and you can venture into cuff bracelets and larger earrings if you’re so inclined. Careful, though, that you don’t overdo the sparkly: If your accessories glint in the stage lights as you move, that can be irritating.
Be comfortable: You’re gonna be the main attraction for quite a while, so don’t wear a stiff, confining blazer or a dress that makes you self-conscious about your butt. Pick clothes and accessories that feel good. Anything that pulls, pinches, or subdivides won’t be flattering or comfortable, and anything fussy will just distract you.
What to Wear For a Small Group Presentation
With a smaller audience, more tweaks can be made, including:
Regular makeup: For TV and large groups, kick it up. If it’s just you and six colleagues in a conference room, regular makeup is fine.
Wear your favorite colors and patterns: Guidelines are much looser with small groups, so feel free to be a bit more creative. However, bear in mind that structure and clean lines will always help you look authoritative and that wearing a color that works with your complexion is always wise.
Do your nails: With a smaller audience, your hands will be visible as you gesture. Don’t feel like you need to get a professional manicure, but make sure your nails are neat and tidy – either freshly polished or polish-free, as well as clean and trimmed.
Test your outfit noise level: Necklaces, bracelets, and earrings can all jingle. Some shoes squeak. Walk around the room once and make sure you aren’t making any distracting noises with your wearables.
What to Wear For Any Professional Appearance
Assemble and try on your outfit the night before: Dressing for a media appearance or presentation takes some serious planning and forethought, so don’t leave it till the morning of. Pull the pieces together and try them on, down to shoes and accessories. Photograph the outfit if you’re not sure and get a second opinion. That way, once you’re onstage or on-screen you can focus 100% on your performance and forget all about what you’re wearing.
Wear comfortable shoes: Doesn’t matter if you think you’ll be standing stock still the entire time. Foot discomfort can be incredibly distracting, so pick a pair you know will keep your toes happy.
My weekly TV spots require me to wear something related to the topic at hand, so I can’t always follow my own guidelines. For instance, in the screenshot at the top of this post I’m in mint green because we were talking pastels. But you’ll notice I did simple but interesting accessories, clean lines, nothing jingly, and gray as my neutral. My makeup is simple but flattering, I opted for solids instead of patterns, and stuck with structured but comfortable clothing.
Presentations and media appearances are great for your resume and can be incredibly fun and exhilarating, but figuring out what to wear can feel stressful. Hopefully these guidelines will be helpful as you plan for future TV spots and seminars.
I’d love to hear additional tips from you presentation pros! What would you add? How do you dress for television, large group, and small group appearances?
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, blogger, stylist, and teacher. In addition to writing her popular daily blog, Already Pretty, she contributes regular features to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Huffington Post. She is the creator and co-host of “Trendy or Timeless,” a weekly fashion segment on the Fox 9 Morning Show. Sally teaches quarterly community education classes, conducts workshops and seminars, has spoken at BlogHer and IFB, and has guest lectured at the University of Minnesota and St. Catherine University. In 2012, she released her first book, Already Pretty: Learning to Love Your Body by Learning to Dress it Well. She firmly believes that style is a tool for self-love that should be accessible to everyone. Including you.