How to Dress Professionally

What to Wear for Presentations

A women in business attire gives a presentation
••• Dave and Les Jacobs / Blend Images / Getty Images

Over the last decade or more, casual attire has become the norm in most workplaces. If your employer doesn't require you to dress professionally, as most do not, it may be a challenge to figure out what to wear when a special work occasion arises. Jeans and a t-shirt, while more appropriate than a business suit, for many jobs, just won't do for some situations.

When Should You Dress Professionally?

Certain situations require you to wear more business-like attire than what you would dress in for a typical day at the office. For example, when you have to give a presentation or represent your organization at a conference, you should always look your professional best.

What does dressing professionally really mean? Do you have to wear a dark suit? It depends on your client. For example, when giving a presentation to a client in a more traditional industry such as the legal or financial services industries, formal workplace attire is the way to go. Let's say your presentation is going to instead be before clients from a company in the IT industry. In that case, you can be a bit more casual. Although you may not have to wear a suit, you should consider something a bit nicer than what you would wear for a typical day of work.

You may question whether your attire will genuinely make a difference. After all, will your client react more favorably to your presentation if you are better dressed? If you perform poorly—either you are unprepared or your client doesn't like what you're offering—it won't matter if your suit is the best one money can buy. Likewise, an excellent presentation will still be an excellent presentation, if you dress casually.

While a person in jeans may be as competent and as intelligent as one wearing a business suit, or more so, people assess others' attributes based on what they see. All the ingredients—knowledge, preparation, and appearance—are necessary to make a good impression. When you spend your days in jeans and t-shirts, it is unlikely your closet is stocked with the "right stuff." Here is what you need to do when casual dress is your norm, but you occasionally have to dress professionally.

How to Dress Professionally

If you make presentations or attend conferences at least a couple of times a year, a nice business suit is a good investment. Get something in a classic style and color. You will be able to wear it for several years. Purchase a white or pastel shirt or blouse to go with it.

If an occasion to dress professionally only comes up infrequently, you may be able to get away without spending money on a suit. You can wear nice business clothes instead. Women can usually wear a skirt, dress, or pants, a blouse, and a jacket or cardigan, while men can wear dress trousers, a button-down shirt, a tie, and jacket.

Keep your look professional right down to your feet. Wear a well-fitting and not-too-trendy pair of shoes in a neutral color. Make sure they are always in good condition because, believe it or not, people do notice when shoes look worn.

Your hair should be well-groomed and your fingernails should be neat and clean. If you wear jewelry, keep it simple. Depending on your employer's and your client's cultures, you may want to hide any tattoos you have and remove jewelry from any body piercings.

What to Do If You Have to Be on Camera

It isn't unusual these days to have to participate in a video conference. Take it into consideration when planning your attire that we appear differently on camera than in person. Avoid wearing patterned clothing which may look distorted. Neutral colors work best, but avoid black, white, or red. Many experts say that pastels look good on camera.

Style your hair neatly and make sure to keep it out of your eyes. It will distract both you and those who are watching. Don't wear iridescent, frosted, or glittery makeup. A matte finish is best.

Whether speaking in front of people or a camera, sit up straight. You will look alert and engaged. Slouching will make you seem bored. Try to appear like you're happy to be there. A smile gives the impression that you are friendly and approachable. Of course, if you are talking about a solemn topic, don't look giddy. Avoid fidgeting, biting your nails, or playing with your jewelry. Most importantly, remember to breathe.