Certainly what you say is more important than what people see. Your appearance, however, is an important aspect of your presentation skills; you want to encourage the audience to listen to what you have to say.
Remember that your presentation begins the moment someone recognizes you as the speaker. This might be in the elevator, the restroom, or even in the parking garage. As soon as you are in close proximity to your speaking location, act as though you are on stage—because you may be. Finish your preparation before you leave your car. Avoid writing down notes at the table before you speak. People might get the impression that you did not carefully prepare.
Be sociable in the activities that precede your speech. Look pleasant. Meet and greet people and show a genuine interest in the other person. This is not the time to be sitting by yourself pondering your presentation. Show by your expression and actions that you are engaged in the activities which precede your presentation.
Wear clothing suitable for the audience you are speaking to. If you are not sure, ask the program planner when you are learning about your audience. When possible, dress one notch up from the audience. For men that might mean wearing a sport coat with an open collar if you know your audience will be in knit shirts and slacks. For women this might mean wearing nice slacks and sweater when speaking to a casual retreat where women will be in jeans. For most occasions in a hotel or event center, a suit and tie or silk blouse is always appropriate. Do not wear clothing that can be distracting, which might mean avoiding flashy jewelry or flamboyant shirts and scarves. For some people, of course, the flamboyant look is their trademark. Your appearance should blend in well with your content and the audience to which you are speaking.
I was once in a setting where the young man who was teaching was frustrated at what he perceived to be a negative attitude from the participants. Over half the audience was in suits and ties, dresses and high heels, with a few people in jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers. The speaker was in jeans with his shirttail out and wearing sandals. There was nothing wrong with his dress if he’d been in the audience, but it adversely affected his rapport with some of the people there. Someone privately suggested he tuck in his shirt and wear a sport coat to the next session, and he wisely took the advice. He was amazed at the difference his effort on his appearance made on the attitude of his audience. His content was excellent but was overshadowed by how he presented himself.
Check yourself in the mirror of the restroom before you enter the meeting room to make sure that everything about your appearance is in place. About a year ago I was in a hurry to make a noon banquet speech and I skipped the restroom look. When I got back to the car after the speech, I realized I had unbuttoned the top button of my shirt and pulled my tie loose earlier in the day, and I had looked that way throughout the speech. I’m sure I appeared as though I’d had more than food at lunch that day!
Look confident even though you may feel nervous about your presentation. Avoid the worried, furrowed-brow look. Smile a lot. Walk with a bounce in your step. Emanate that “I am in charge” aura. You will certainly have that confident look when you are speaking and you will want to show it in the minutes before you speak as well. The incongruity of looking too serious and worried and then smiling and acting enthusiastic as you speak may negatively affect your credibility.
Finally, when you are introduced, walk to the lectern with erect posture, quick steps, and a smile on your face. Before you actually speak, look at the audience to make eye contact with several people, and then begin.
Of course you rely first on great content, but these tips can help you to reinforce your expertise with a professional manner and look.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at www.sboyd.com. He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.