For years I’ve avoided talking about the topic of what to wear when presenting. I didn’t want to cover it because I didn’t want people to think that I only worried about this topic because I was a woman. I also didn’t want other women to inherit any of my neuroses around deciding what to wear. I’m the sort of person who always enjoyed thinking long and hard about what to wear the next day at work, and I know that’s not how everyone works.
These days, as someone who’s been working at home for five years; as someone who’s been presenting at big conferences for seven years; as someone who has to hustle to get out of the house in the mornings in order to get the kids to school; I now feel like having to spend lots of time deciding what to wear is just an enormous cognitive load. And, incidentally, one that most men don’t have.
I guess this intro is to say: I am (or have been) the sort of person who cares a lot about how I look. But I can also inhabit the other end of that spectrum and feel there are things that are significantly more important to worry about.
Given all of that, there are some factors that you really do have to consider in terms of the practicalities of what you’re wearing when you present at conferences, and I want to cover some of these. As usual, my advice is from my point of view as a woman, but it may also be helpful to everyone.
I’ve already written a long piece on the impact of wearing a mic and mention in there some of the limitations it puts on what you wear or how you style yourself. In this post we’ll look at some other considerations.
Wearing a dress is tricky
As I mentioned in my piece about wearing a mic, a dress is not always a practical choice for presenting in as there’s nowhere to put the mic pack. I personally find this sad, as I like a classic dress to present in. But dresses also don’t always pack well - I have several great ones that are stretchy and don’t crease, but many dresses don’t cope well with being squished into hand luggage. I also worry (Trish neurosis alert) that dresses are more identifiable and I would hate to be seen presenting in the same thing twice (sigh. Fortunately I don’t apply this to corporate t-shirts or simple tops, otherwise I’d be buying a LOT of new clothes).
Skirt length is tricky
My first solo presentation (oh bless look, I’m so nervous!) I was wearing a brand new dress I’d bought just for presenting at that conference. I had not worn it “in real life”, I’d only tried it on. Turned out, just through the everyday process of getting to the venue by Underground that this dress was MUCH shorter than I realised. I tried to mitigate it on my way to the venue by buying opaque tights to wear with it, but I was very self concious (and this is despite the fact that I was notorious for wearing very short skirts to work all the time). It was a particularly bad choice because this talk involved me pointing to lots of things on the screen and waving my arms a lot, and I didn’t want to raise my arms for fear of making my dress ride up even higher than it already was.
My talk got rave reviews, but I have not worn that dress in any professional capacity since. And when I wear it at home, I wear it with shorts or leggings.
The moral of this story is not only to be aware that skirt length may be impact by arm waving (and don’t forget you’re probably also on a raised stage with people looking up at you….), but also that you need to wear something you have worn In Real Life at least once, recently, to understand how it feels and how it fits.
I’ve just mentioned that you might be on an actual stage. I own a LOT of high heeled shoes, and I consider (or at least, considered) myself a pro in walking in ridiculous heels. But even I think twice about walking up the stairs to a stage wearing 6 inch heels, there will be a lot of people to laugh at… I mean, with… me if I fall over on my way to start my presentation.
I do like to wear heels / awesome shoes though. For practicality reasons I’ve simply settled on jeans and t-shirt (usually a JetBrains one) to present in (it works for the mic, it’s easy to pack, it’s minimal cognitive load thinking about it, I wear the jeans all the time so I know how they look and how they fit). The only real scope for individuality is to wear fantastic shoes. Plus, I’m a short-ish woman (5 ft 4), if I’m going to be on stage with men, I like to measure up comparably to them. Maybe that’s a silly thing to worry about, but studies do show people prefer tall men and I’m going to use every trick I have to make sure I’m seen as a person with authority.
I did say this was from a woman’s point of view. I know you all know that it’s important to have a bra that fits properly. I also know that you all know most of us are not wearing the correct size bra. Something I noticed when I watched back one of my talks is that I repeatedly had to re-adjust my bra strap because it was falling down. This was super distracting. So that bra is out of rotation for presenting (the straps don’t actually go any tighter, which is irritating).
There are probably dozens of other concerns around bras, not just about getting the size right so it’s comfortable and sits correctly. I worry about my bra being visible (either the straps being visible, the top of the cups being visible, or the pattern or shape showing through my top). I also worry that a camera flash might show up something that you wouldn’t see under normal light. I don’t have much advice here, I’m just passing on some of the things I worry about.
Mostly these days as I said I want to reduce cognitive load around this area. I just don’t want to think about it.
Because the conferences I present at also require travel to get there, usually plane travel, I have some other things that make my life easier:
- Packing lists. I have a list of stuff to pack when I’m going to a conference (separated into suitcase list and laptop bag list). These lists are extensive and have things I don’t need to take every time, so I make a copy of the master list for each trip, delete the stuff I don’t need (like: sandals and sunscreen if it’s winter), and then I can pack just the stuff I need
- I have a full makeup kit and toiletries for travelling. I don’t pack a selection of my home make up & toiltries, I always just take my travel kit. The toileties are obviously travel size and in that silly transparent bag you need to get it through airport security. I also have a comb, razor, etc, duplicates of all the stuff I have at home but just packed up and ready to go. The exception here is I don’t have a duplicate electric toothbrush, I have to remember mine, but I do have a “manual” toothbrush in my make up bag just in case
- I have a pack of “conference electronics” - my display port adaptors (to three different types of display, but now everyone just uses HDMI) and my remote.
- I have UK, European and US power supplies for my laptop. Not only does this mean I have good redundancy, but it also means I don’t need to mess around with adaptors which are always the wrong shape and size to fit into whichever power socket you have available.
I guess those last two don’t fall into what to wear. Oh well.
- Always try on your conference outfit in advance. And not just at home in front of the mirror, actually wear it out.
- Consider that being on a raised stage may pose limitations, e.g. on skirt length or heel height for getting onto the stage (related: I once presented on a raised stage without steps. It was tricky for me to get onto with heels and a skirt, but impossible for my pregnant co-presenter to get on to).
- Try and minimise things that will irritate or distract you. For me, this is things like my bra strap constantly falling down, or my hair getting in my face.
- Having a set “uniform” for presenting in, packing lists, travel packs specifically for conferences will all help you to think less about all of this and more about something more interesting. Finding a uniform is going to be about finding your style, and that’s a bigger question outside of the scope of this post.
- Above all, wear something that makes you feel confident, and comfortable enough.