When Your Clothes Speak Louder Than Your Words: Four Factors to Ensure Your Verbal Message Is All Your Audience Hears

Even in this digital age, where phone alerts of breaking news developments pop up on my screen, I still watch the news. I have since I was little.  Growing up, we’d routinely watch the news during dinner. I even worked out to the 6 am news while in college and law school.  As a grown adult, with kids of my own, I still can’t fall asleep without catching the first five minutes of the local news, at the very least.

Why bother, you might ask?  Probably not for the reason you think.

I grew up trusting news anchors not just because they were the gatekeepers of the most up to date information concerning the state of the world pre-internet, but because of how they dressed. Female anchors, dressed in a suit or sheath dress; and their gentlemen counterparts, clad in a suit and tie, commanded respect and appeared credibly by virtue of the way they dressed and before even speaking a word.   Their polished appearance inspired the audience’s trust — and mine– in providing accurate answers and reliable, credible information.

And it’s no coincidence.

Before working as a professional fashion stylist, I worked as a litigation attorney for over 15 years.  After hundreds of depositions, I became fascinated less with impeaching a witness or catching them in a half-truth; and more with why I approached them the way I did.  If a witness showed up looking polished, in a coat and tie or a dress, I instinctively felt the need to “up my game” because the individual was likely well-coached by their counsel, he/she was a “know it all,” or some combination thereof.  If they arrived looking like they had just rolled out of bed, they were likely unprepared, uninvested, and disinterested — which meant they didn’t know what was coming and I was about to have some fun.

Call me judgmental. But I’m not alone.

Studies show that it takes less than seven (7) seconds to form a first impression of someone. Worse still, it takes less than one tenth (1/10) of a second to assess someone’s trustworthiness.

What does that mean, practically speaking?

It means we all judge a book by its cover, whether we want to or not.  These statistics don’t lie — they strongly suggest we are hard-wired that way, likely because it was better to be safe than sorry in the caveman days. Indeed, it was better to wander out into the night to find the source of that rustle in the grass, lest allow your family to perish because you assumed the best of the animal out there, wanting to feast on you for supper; or the enemy wanting to seize your land or property.

In modern times, it means before you’ve even said a word, or shook a hand, someone has already decided who you are, what you are about, and whether you can be trusted.  And it’s not your resume, your pedigree, or your actual character upon which they are basing that judgment.  It’s based on one simple thing: how you showed up.  Based on what you are wearing, how you carry yourself; whether you are put together; your makeup; your hair; whether your clothes are pressed; your accessories; and/or whether your shoes are polished, someone has decided whether they like you, can trust you, whether you are credible; and/or whether you pass muster.

So, regardless of whether you are interviewing for a job; broadcasting on television; or delivering a speech/presenting to a crowd of 100 or 1000, your goal is the same: to deliver a clear, consistent, powerful message.  The key to doing that is simple:  focus on the things over which you have complete control, namely  (1) the message itself; and (2) how it’s delivered.

While the first is more obvious, and likely the natural focus on your attention, I urge you not to overlook the second because how you deliver your message is arguably more important than you may initially think. 

Sure, delivering your message entails mastering your intonation and driving home your key points in a manner consistent with the message’s content.  But, how you deliver your message is as much about how you show up to deliver it as it is anything else.  To ensure your message packs a punch, devote as much time to crafting it as you do your look — i.e. what you wear and how you wear it because how you show up to deliver your message may send a message different from your verbal one.  And if you do, it’s highly unlikely you will get a chance to clarify or correct.

To ensure you dress the part and communicate effectively, remember the ABCD’s in assembling your look.

A: Audience, Appropriateness and Authenticity:

First, consider your Audience. Who are you speaking to and what are their expectations of you?  Where are you speaking and does your look align with your surroundings and/or venue? Is your topic sensitive, ethereal, academic in nature, or spiritual? Are you inspiring or educating people?  By keeping these factors in mind, your outfit can draw the audience in as easily as it can alienate them if you opt for the wrong silhouette and/or fabric, for instance.

Next, dress Appropriately.  This goes well beyond dressing in a weather appropriate manner, consistent with your surroundings.  It means avoid wearing stiletto heels if you are delivering your speech while standing on grass.  The stilettos may elongate your legs and be the perfect shoe to match your look; but in this context, it reflects unpreparedness — and will likely result in both your message and stance searching for firm footing.  It means being mindful of your hemlines and necklines (i.e. not too short or long).  It means avoid wearing a suit or a structured jacket if your topic is emotional or ethereal in nature — it will incorrectly convey that you are unapproachable and undermine your message overall.

Finally, be Authentic Brene Brown said it best when she described authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.”  To authentically communicate your message, strike a balance between the other “ABC” factors and your personal style — all the while remembering that the balance is circumstance and situationally dependent.  Without it, your message will be diluted because it will fundamentally lack credibility.

B: Branding:

The “B” factor, or Branding, is especially critical in this day an age, perhaps more so than ever.  The reasons for this are simple: the internet has a perfect memory and you are the face of your brand.  And, you don’t have to own or work for a Fortune 500 company owner to have a “brand.” Personal branding and being “on brand” is just as important, if not more important in communicating your message.  How you show up is both a promise and an expectation:  it’s the promise you are making about what people can expect from you.  Always bear in mind that who you think you are may differ from who others perceive you to be based on how you choose to show up, so make sure to strive to align those on every occasion.

C: Consistency:

Speaking of which…  “C”  is about Consistency.  Consistency is key — plain and simple — in how you show up and in everything you do.  The world struggles with change, so the best way to firmly establish yourself — and effectively communicate your message– is to hone your personal style, pick a signature look in line with the factors we have discussed, and run with it. It’s why Steve Jobs gained notoriety and success he did — and why everyone knows him:  it all came down to a simple black turtleneck.  Each and every time he addressed an audience, he wore a black turtleneck. It became his calling card.  People knew precisely what to expect from him, his company and their products — which thereby enhanced the efficacy of his message and his brand’s awareness and popularity.

D: Dressing free of Distraction:

Finally, “D” stands for Dressing free of Distraction.  Generally speaking, avoid:

  • loud, bright colors (unless it’s on brand);
  • prints (especially large ones; stripes can sometimes be ok, depending on their width (too small can make your audience dizzy; and too wide can be distracting));
  • logos;
  • patterned fabrics;
  • large, bulky accessories and
  • too much bling.

Be mindful about color choice, and make sure your color selection aligns with your audience, your messaging and your environment.  Wearing a power color (aka black, navy, dark grey) can communicate authoritativeness, confidence and strength, which is great in court, but bad if your message is emotional in nature, generally speaking.  If you are covering a sport team, be mindful about your color choices.  Donning the opposing teams’ colors will have your audience questioning your loyalty, your choices, and worse still, your credibility.

Be careful with fabric and silhouette choices as well.  A lace dress is great for a cocktail party but will undermine your message broadcast from almost any other venue.  Worse still, wearing a nude colored dress at a manifesting spirituality conference will undoubtedly manifest thoughts in your audience better suited for a private venue.

In sum, dress in a way to ensure that your message is the only thing your audience remembers.  It’s in part, why I still watch the evening news every night before bed, even though CNN never leaves me void of news updates.  I just want to make sure I hear it from the people I’ve grown up watching and trust.  In the end, that’s what we all want: to work with, know, hear from and be in the company of people we know, like and trust.

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