Gini Dietrich

Attire Not Appropriate for Public Speaking

By: Gini Dietrich | May 26, 2010 | 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I saw Avinash Kaushik give the keynote at SES…in jeans. It’s bothering me so much that we discussed it a bit about it during dinner at Counselors Academy and, based on the reaction I received there, I know it’s going to ruffle some feathers. But it’s important to begin the conversation…

Wearing jeans for public speaking – keynote, breakout, panel, whatever it might be – is not appropriate OR professional.

I get that jeans have become the social media uniform. But I don’t get why so many really popular public speakers think it’s okay to wear jeans when they are on stage.

In our industry, everyone complains that we still don’t have a seat at the boardroom table, yet we think it’s okay to wear jeans as our professional dress. If you want to sit at the table in the greater business conversation, you have to look like you belong there.

I remember many years ago, Gary Kisner told me that you have to look the part if you want people to take you seriously. He was using this lesson in the context of telling me to stop biting my fingernails. He asked me why I thought real estate agents drove nice cars or bankers wore expensive suits. It’s because people want to do business with professionals who LOOK like they’re successful. The banker may have only one expensive suit, but he looks the part. The real estate agent may have had to forgo buying a house for the nice car, but when clients get in her car, they think she’s successful.  Perception very much is reality.

If you want a seat at the proverbial table, look and act like you belong there. You’ll go from offering social media consulting as a tool in the toolbox to having very high-level conversations about strategy and business growth, as it relates to your expertise. People want to work with professionals who look successful and, let’s be real, even though your jeans cost $200, they’re still jeans.

As my mom always says, “It’s better to be overdressed than under-dressed.”

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Great post Gini – and yes probably will ruffle some feathers but something about jeans just sends a completely different message by a public speaker than business casual or more formal attire. I think if you are trying to portray an air of professionalism and want to be taken seriously on the topic you want to dress the part…be interesting to see how many disagree on that one. Cheers,


  • I totally agree with you. But then, I’m the girl who wears lipstick in her home office. Alone. People often complain that they’re uncomfortable in business dress, and that is usually the reason for the jeans, but sometimes they just need to have an intervention and to see how much more professional they look when they’re dress appropriately. Great post!

  • I agree… I think informal wear is good for some situations – but not if you want to look professional! I always over-dress just in case…

    and another good example of how we dress – and it really isn’t that important (as being professional) is on airplanes… I still ‘dress’ to travel – and sitting next to someone in their pajamas is a little weird! LOL

  • Kudos to you for putting this one out there! I’m sure you will get some impassioned responses – here’s mine.

    At one time, I worked as the director for a large corporate childcare center. My peers usually dressed much like the teachers and appropriate to working with kids: loose, comfortable, cheap and casual. When we got a new DM that required us to dress as business professionals many objected that it was pointless. My experience, however was that I FELT different dressed as a corporate exec, and subsequently the overall performance of my center improved markedly.We maxed enrollment and had many on waiting lists, staff esteem and professionalism increased, and we were winning awards for sales performance as well as operational excellence. I was being asked to speak, train and participate on community boards. I attribute this change in large part to changing my clothes, which had the effect of changing my view of who I was and what I could accomplish.

  • Teresa

    Addressing another great topic, Gini. This is another sign of our times, along with no longer addressing superiors, or anyone, for that matter, by Mr. or Ms.

    I am not a speaker, but I have struggled with this issue myself having traveled a great deal for business. Do I travel in jeans & hope my luggage with my business attire for the meeting arrives with me? Or do I travel dressed and ready to work as soon as I’ve stepped off the plane, however uncomfortable or impractical it seems at the time? I will confess that I have ended up managing a couple of shows in jeans due to delayed luggage or flights.

    That’s why this is a great topic! Its context isn’t just isolated to speakers, but to a variety of professions.

  • Molly, you address a very good topic that I didn’t explore in the blog post. A couple of years ago, it was abnormally cold in Chicago and our managing director suggested we allow employees to wear jeans every day both to stay warm and to save on dry cleaning bills. I was talked into it and I watched productivity plummet. You just behave differently when you’re dressed for success. I’m not going to pretend I don’t wear jeans to work. I do. But typically only once a week when I have no meetings and know it’s just a behind-the-computer-screen kind of day. Otherwise I put on a pair of heels and a skirt or slacks and I go to work.

    Teresa, a very good question you raise. I always dress for the meeting when traveling. I don’t want to chance it. I don’t even wear jeans to dinner with a client, even if they are wearing jeans.

    I have video of Marijean wearing lipstick at her desk…in her home…if anyone wants to see it! 🙂

  • I completely agree with your points, Gini. I am an independent consultant and I work at client sites pretty much all the time. I wear a suit to work Every. Single. Day. My clients also hire other consultants, and I am constantly amazed by what those other consultants consider proper work attire. Jeans, scruffy clothes. It says a lot about their level of professionalism. I’m very good at what I do – and as a result, I can charge the highest rates in my industry. But dressing professionally, and acting professionally, is another part of my success. I don’t think I would have as much success as I consistently do were it not for both sides of the equation: being excellent at what I do, and looking like I know what I’m doing.

  • Thx for opening the conversation Gini. Your post reminds of what my hubby told his son when he was looking for a job back in his high school days — the people doing the hiring (and to your point in the board room) are people our age and older who expect presenters and members to dress the part (a certain amount of conforming to a norm).

    Does wearing jeans indicate an attitude of confidence and authenticity or does it indicate a degree of inconsideration for the audience or maybe the thought about appearance never crosses their minds? I’ve actually seen well known and respected presenters in jeans and a crisp shirt or dress jacket and their appearance didn’t distract me from the message nor offend me in any way. (Of course they weren’t dressed in shabby jeans and a t-shirt either.) I don’t plan to wear jeans for a presentation but I actually don’t mind so much if others do.

  • I honestly didn’t completely agree with you at first Gini, but the more and more I thought about it, when public speaking you are the expert. People are not only paying money most of the time, they are paying in time. I could see how wearing jeans could cloud a speaker’s message and overall value. I could also see how it may be insulting to some. It took me half an hour for it to seep in, but I agree. Good post Gini.

  • I think there’s a certain point at which perceptions of success swing full circle and people get suspicious if someone ISN’T prone to dress casually–wouldn’t you worry if Steve Jobs showed up without his jeans and black turtleneck? People joke about how in Silicon Valley you can’t tell the homeless apart from the millionaires except by their watches.

    But if you’re not at that level of success, I agree–“dress for the job you want” shouldn’t mean that when you’re speaking in public you get to dress like Steve Jobs! I don’t mind it personally, especially if the jeans worn are a dark trouser cut, but there will always be someone present who does mind. Rarely will there be someone present who takes it as a personal insult if you dress formally.

    (That said, the last time I spoke in anything resembling the “public,” I wore jeans–but that was part of the presentation!)

  • Seeing someone wearing jeans while speaking in public tells me one of two things. 1. They are a slob and or don’t care about themselves. 2. They are so full of themselves that they think they can do what they want. Either personality trait loses big points for me. This brings me back to my college days on the speech (forensics) team, men and women wore suits, period. Credibility lends itself partially to a professional wardrobe. Great topic Gini (as always).

  • Dena Saper

    I’ve just lost a large amount of weight and I’m doing some wardrobe updating. Some days you’ll find me working in a wrinkled shirt and khakis (jeans aren’t allowed) and others you’ll find me in a sweater set and nice skirt. I definately get better reactions in the latter outfit. The other day, I heard someone discussing me and they said I was pretty, yet disheveled — like I’d been dragged backwards through a hedge. That was quite the wake-up call!

  • I just sent this blog post to Steve Jobs…

  • Gini, I completely agree with you. When speaking, working or even going to volunteer business-oriented committee meetings with anyone that even resembles a client or potential client, then I wear professional clothing, which to me means either a suit or at least a jacket/blazer, whatever you want to call it. We have the rest of the day to wear what makes us comfortable.

  • I guess there is always an exception to the rules. It’s hard to fight for a standard when mavericks look to someone as their role model that bucks the system.

  • I’m with you on this one! Here in Sweden business attire is quite smart. Not necessarily a formal suit, but definitely a jacket and good clothes. Jeans don’t really cut it.

    I’ve talked a lot in Norway though and often clients turn up in jeans, t-shirts and with rucksacks. I always feel overdressed if I cross the border.

  • I actually hadn’t thought that much about it, though I did recently go to a social media conference where pretty much EVERY speaker wore jeans. It didn’t bother me much at the time, although anytime I’m speaking, I wear a suit or a dress – always. My mom always told me to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and because I work with lawyers who are generally more formally dressed themselves, I dress accordingly. So I have to agree with you too.

    Although for me, working at home (and sitting at my computer in cutoff sweatshorts and a tee shirt right now), I’m just as productive dressed down as up. It’s more dependent on my caffeine intake than anything else!

  • @Jelena Knods in agreement
    @Dallas Kincaid LOL

    Steve at nobel prize 2007,

    It depends on your industry,standards and your status. In the mean team, dress Steve Jobs as you see fit. (Spoiler: No suits to be found in this closet.)

  • Think Gini’s next dare should be doing a video completely dressed like Steve Jobs. shhhhhhh don’t tell her I said this.

  • Rusty

    In Vienna, the standard business look for men is a crisp starched spread-collar shirt, Countess Mara tie (vest optional), expensive, tailored pinstriped or dark blazer, awesome paddock-style boots, and…indigo jeans.

    It looks magnificent. Serious, yet confidently comfortable.

  • Great topic, Gini! My attire runs the gamut from gym clothes to dresses and heels, and while I feel perfectly productive sitting at home or even meeting a friend for breakfast in my gym clothes, I totally agree with you about speaking and professional situations. Even though I gave away all my suits (they just don’t “suit” me, and my business is much more creative), I never show up at events in jeans. It just doesn’t project the right image–even nice jeans. Of course, I grew up in the South, wasn’t allowed to wear pants to church and went to college where dressing up was the norm.

    I’m sort of reaching a happy medium on this topic. I used to always overdress and feel like suits were the business norm. Then I worked at home and didn’t see many people and got lazy–I’ll admit it, I’ve even taken meetings in my workout clothes (generally with people who’ve known me for a while and mostly because my Pilates classes are smack in the middle of the day, and my time is limited). But I’m realizing that I FEEL and PROJECT more confidence if I’m happy with what I’m wearing. And that means something creative and me, but something professional that people will take me seriously in. Especially since I still look like I’m 25.

  • Don’t get me started. That is all. 🙂

    Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Always look upward for your attire cues. If your CEO is a jeans man/woman, do that. If not, then don’t.


  • Lon

    In Oregon, we had a governor for eight years that wore blue jeans all the time. Part of his persona and personal badge. Two by the ways: One, he is running again for governor after being out of office for a time; and two, when he went to a local country club when he was a governor, the club refused to let him in until he put on slacks. Yes, he did wear a tie and sport coat as well.

  • It seems to me this particular post has taken the roll of “yes men” because I honestly would of thought that conversation would have been two-sided. I’m sorry but I completely disagree with your take and your post Gini. If the clothes I wear detour in any way, shape, or form from my message then I think those hearing it need to change their glasses. The notion that “you are taken as seriously as your attire” is beyond preposterous. It’s down right wrong. I could honestly throw up if I hear another person post, comment, say, or scream “dress like you want the job.” As to indicate that because I’m wearing a tie or a suit, that means that somehow I’m smarter. That my message is more educated, because I can strap on my Ralph Lauren three-piece.

    In my humble, 26 year old, struggling entrepreneur, speaker, who is still fortunate to be provided help from his parents (I thought I would preface my next comments, since undoubtedly judgement is going to be made based on that bias anyways) — it’s old business being territorial of new business. I think meetings are stupid, email strings wasteful of time (my most precious commodity) and that someone that expects me to meet them fully clothed, presentable and with a fresh haircut is largely mistaken.

    I know I’m going to ruffle a lot of feathers negatively with my opinions, even my good friend Gini, but it’s something I’m extremely passionate about. The notion that the “clothes make the man” never made sense. Do I enjoy dressing up, absolutely. I happen to love it actually. (A point you can count as fluff as you wish reading this, frankly I don’t care) But I come from a school of thought that if you tell me what sex I need to be, clothes I need to wear, or age necessary, I laugh at your expectations.

    Treat content contribution and consumption if you were blind. All you have to go by is my work and my words.

  • Bob Reed

    Depends on the person, their vibe and the venue. Are jeans considered the same as cargo pants and cords? I’ve seen pictures of Tim Ferriss wear all three when giving his presentations (and no, not at the same time). As long as someone doesn’t present him or herself as a total slob, denim doesn’t bother me. I go to events to listen and participate, not to critique fashion.

  • I think the first question I have is why somebody would fixate on someone else’s wardrobe this much.

    I think jeans can be pulled off by certain people, but it really depends on the intent of the message. If I’m talking about something that requires rigorous methodology – as an analytics related presentation would – I would associate jeans with an informality and immediately discount the findings. If I’m listening to creatives speak about fluffy cloud ideas, jeans are fine.

    There’s also the question of esteem. Steve Jobs can wear jeans because he’s demonstrated success. A novice does not have this esteem power, and must reinforce their credibility with image.

    When in doubt, dress better than the audience.

  • Feather ruffler. 😉 Here’s the thing — I think it’s completely dependent on the corporate culture. Our culture is fairly casual, and I think it’d be a misrepresentation of what we stand for and what kind of culture we uphold as an organization if we presented in full business suits. But that’s *us*.

    Something to think about, too — and this is a bit of a personal thing — suits can be intimidating. Do I think they look professional? Absolutely. Do they scream, “Hey, come talk to me”? Not at all. Do I let any of it stand in my way of talking to someone? No, but it probably does change the way I interact with him or her, and not necessarily in a positive way.

    I’d say my bosses are perfect examples of people who speak in jeans and are still taken incredibly seriously in their profession. As with most everything in life, though, it all depends.

  • I’m with Rusty above. I gave a presentation at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America last year and wore a pressed shirt, coat jeans and my best pair of brown shoes. One of the owners tugged at my coat and complimented it, and even a few of the people made comments about how well I was dressed.

    Granted, that’s me all the time, but I definitely have jeans as a standby wherever I go, complete with an always ironed shirt and normally a jacket. Shirt always tucked in btw, NEVER out.

    I do of course have a suit, and nice dress pants, but it depends on who you are talking too. If I’m talking to a bunch of coaches, me wearing a pair of slacks just says ‘I’m kinda out of your league’ but if I’m meeeting with a front office of a soccer club, I’m definitely breaking out the suit.

  • As a sales professional, I was taught that if I expected potential clients to give me their money (and lots of it) – I’d better look like I knew what to do with it. Do I evoke success – as you so aptly stated in your post – in the way I dress and carry myself? Here’s to professionals who understand the significance of attire.

  • When I got my First Real Job out of the school of waiting tables (long after I had graduated college), it was a concierge position. I didn’t want that job, I wanted the marketing position two steps up from me. I went out and spent $700 on a professional wardrobe which was a lot of money to me then, and I was definitely an overdressed concierge. But I was in that job I wanted within two years. I agree with you, and Jamie’s comment above.
    Dress for the job you want.

  • In the financial advice world either “decent” business casual or full business attire is appropriate. At a conference I recently attended most of the speakers (who were my peers) were business casual and this felt appropriate. When I address employee groups to do financial education I also generally do business casual. I want to look professional, but I also do not want to come accross as intimidating in a suit. However, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable in jeans, no matter how casually the audience might be dressed.

  • Kristen

    As someone who loved my private school uniform in high school and has presented numerous times (not in jeans), I would almost want to agree with you except that by using Avinash as your example, you immediately disprove your entire theory. I’ve seen Avinash present on many occasions, and to put it simply – no one knows their sh*t better than he does. And he’s an excellent presenter! Keeping the audience interested, engaged and excited. He reminds me of another great presenter – Seth Godin. And, yeah, he was in jeans the last time I saw him too.

    Ryan phrased it nicely: “Treat content contribution and consumption if you were blind. All you have to go by is my work and my words.” In the end, I’m more concerned about what I can learn from you than the fabric of your pants.

  • Derek Walker

    Would one of you insisting on no jeans, please tell Steve Jobs to stop wearing jeans because we all know how no one listens to him because of how he is dressed. I missed the whole introduction of the ipad because I was trying to figure out why he wore jeans.

  • Hey Gini,

    Great point, and one that needs to be addressed. Our garments say volumes about us, and if we want to be perceived as professionals then we must conform to the precedents of the professional world. I know I wouldn’t feel very comfortable if I went to the doctor’s office and he walked into the consultation room in gym shorts. I’d be headed to another practice quick!

  • Interesting take Gini, I wish we could get away from this type of mentality… in a sense it’s judging the book of the cover… but apparently we’re going to roll with this old school mentality for a lot longer.

    I’m actually glad there are so many people who feel jeans are inappropriate, because when I show up to speak in jeans (looking all dipped in butter and shining), it sends the same message as when I bring boxed wine to a party… I’m here to break rules, and I’ll be doing it all night.

  • *the book by it’s cover*

  • I’m split on this topic as I prescribe to the “depends on the situation” thought line. I do understand that perception is reality (to some) and others reality is reality. Perception of jeans being unprofessional causing dismissal of an idea is a fact of life. Perception exists and continues to exist because people choose to pass it along.

    If we stopped basing judgment on attire and focused on the merit of presentation, information, or knowledge being shared would perception change over time? Would “judging a book by its cover” become “judge a book by its contents”? There was a time when women wearing slacks to work (unless doing “men’s work”) was unprofessional.

    Time and attitude change things and maybe in 10 years we will see a post on how shorts should never be worn for public speaking. Until that point it comes down to personal judgment.

  • Avinash could wear Leia’s bikini from Return of the Jedi and I’d still be in the front row.

    I mean, come on, this isn’t some Gen Y personal branding consultant. It’s a guy who works for Google and has written some of the best books of all time on Web analytics. We’re lucky he bothers to wear pants at all, but we’re far luckier that he’s so generous with his time and insight.

  • I remember talking with you about this with you at Counselors, Gini – and I agree on the jeans front. I spent many years as a writer who only wore blue jeans (and the occasional sport jacket for a reading) and I like dressing up. As silly as that sounds, it does make me feel professional. The funny thing is that like the crisp white shirts, suits and ties the ‘Madmen’ wore, jeans have, in their own way, become a uniform.

  • Brian Conrey

    If you’re presenting in the professional world, dressing professionally is the ante. It’s not optional. You will indeed be taken as seriously as you dress, like it or not. If you’re not serious enough about the client or the job that you’re willing to dress professionally, they’re never going to let your words and your work speak for themselves.

    This isn’t about fair or unfair, it’s how the world is conditioned to respond. It will change, over time, but it hasn’t changed yet. Those of you operating at the fringes of the bell curve risk alienating your clients/customers if those folks aren’t out in the fringes with you. You gain little if you’re right, and risk much if you’re wrong. I’ve never felt overdressed while wearing a suit in any professional situation, but have wished for a coat and/or tie on several occasions where I only wore slacks and sleeves.

    Having said that, there were some great examples raised which highlight the situational nature of attire. I worked in an environment previously where the dress code was casual; I’d have been nuts to wear a suit everyday…..but I could definitely have worn slacks and still fit in. Ryan Knapp’s example is also a good example that (and maybe this is the compromise) dressing 2-3 levels above your clients/customers is a recipie for success, and a suit isn’t always warranted.

  • The general rule that I have always advised my presentation skills clients is this: Always dress SLIGHTLY better than your audience. (If you dress too high above them, you risk coming off as omnipotent and arrogant. But if you dress at or below their level, you don’t come off as professional enough.)

    One time when I was hired to do a presentation skills class for a group, the manager warned me ahead of time that the group thought that attire had no impact on the presentation. However, one of the goals this manager had for the training was to impress upon the participants why attire WAS important when giving a presentation.

    So, I requested a training room at the company that was next to the bathroom. I showed up in jeans and a nice T-shirt. I began speaking, and the reaction of the participants was hilarious. They sat there in dead silence, with their chins on the floor in disbelief.

    After about three minutes of my presentation, I said, “Excuse me” and left the room. I went to the bathroom, where I quickly changed into a pantsuit.

    When I returned, the participants all started laughing, and had looks of, “Oh…NOW I get it!” on their faces.

    I then asked some of the participants why they looked so shocked when I first started speaking. One of the guys said, “Well, the way you were dressed, I thought “THIS is our….alleged….all-knowing….presentation expert?!” He went on to say that he doubted I had any credibility when I first entered the room.

    We then had a meaningful discussion on first impressions, and how attire plays into that.

    The other thing about attire is that it not only impacts the audience, but also the speaker. Believe it or not, we all act a bit differently when we are in professional attire than when we are in jeans.

    Please note: I’m not saying it’s RIGHT that we judge a book by it’s cover. But we react differently to people based on how they are dressed. I’ll never forget the Saturday that I was gardening and had to quick run over to Macy’s to get something before they closed. I couldn’t get a clerk to wait on me in the clothing department to save my neck. But whenever I go in there after a meeting where I am in professional attire, the clerks stumble all over me. Again, it’s not right, but it’s reality.

  • I gotta say I wholeheartedly disagree with this post! I’m done with arbitrary fashion rules for speakers, just as much as I’m done with the idea that realtors should drive nice cars. I think dressing up for work is silly as well. If it makes you work better then go for it, but I think a required dress code is as outdated as requiring women to wear skirts and hose to work.

  • Jonathan Levitt


    I could not disagree with you more….What a ridiculous post and an even more ridiculous topic. My guess is you were too busy looking at his wardrobe to listen to what came out of his mouth…or you’d have realized the you were listening to one of the smartest marketing and analytical minds out there.
    Avinash sits at the head of the proverbial table. The man consults for the biggest companies in the world (the C-Suite of the Fortune 100), has written two award winning books, and works for a small little company you might know called Google. I think he has earned the right to dress however he wants.

    Maybe the reason you haven’t earned a seat at the boardroom table, is because nobody wants to hear you whine about things as stupid as this.


  • I have to agree with Laura, what makes a suit “business attire”? It’s all just convention. I’ll tell you why the uniform of social media is jeans; because people wear jeans when they’re socializing!

    I think people are realizing the business world is changing. We don’t work in factories anymore (most of us) and we don’t get dressed up to eat dinner in our own house. Let’s stop making our lives any more uncomfortable than they need to be.

  • I am insulted and will haunt you from the grave… and not just me Ms. Dietrich, I have friends you know. Jordache, Lee and of course Z. Cavarrici.

    There’s a place for you in Pants Hell…


  • nap

    The argument here is ridiculous. If you really want to be taken seriously in work and in life, the secret isn’t dressing better. It’s executing. Do good work. Give good presentations. Inspire people. Create things that matter.

    If you need to dress a certain way to impress people within your organization, community, or culture, I’d argue that you need to find a different crowd (or company) to attach yourself to. Stop worrying about how others (who are presumably already successful at said things) represent themselves in public because it just doesn’t matter.

    It’s not how you look, it’s who you are and what you do that matters. Just my 0.02.

  • In a way, it’s all about respect. My husband always says that if you want to receive respect, give it. Dressing well for others shows that you respect them and think they are worth dressing up for.

    I teach adult education classes. While many of the instructors wear jeans, I dress professionally for my classes. Occasionally, my students will make a comment on my appearance. I tell them that I dress up for them because I think they are worth it. One student replied, “We noticed and we appreciate it.”

  • Tim Tripcony

    As a software developer, public speaker, and former consultant, I am aware on several levels of the impact that attire can have upon perception – both how the wearer is perceived by others, and how they perceive themselves. This is why I stubbornly insist upon dressing casually in every situation unless winning that battle would cost more than conforming to convention.

    Occasionally I’ll see that some new study has once again found that students perform better on tests when dressed formally than they do when dressed casually… this never surprises me: the average student is trapped in the most insecure stage of their entire life, and it is true that “dressing up” gives most people a boost in confidence. I consider it only natural that this boost would improve the average student’s test scores merely by providing a counterweight to their youthful insecurity, no matter how temporary or superficial that counterweight might be.

    In the business world, this artificial elevation of confidence can – and, in my experience, often does – have disastrous results.  Because it is not based on an individual’s awareness of their own capacity to deliver value to those demanding it, but instead based simply on how impressive they look, it can quite frequently derail expectation management. Any incompetent hack can don a three-piece, talk a good game, and fool the audience for a short time… especially if they’ve bought into their own rhetoric due to their artificially bolstered confidence. But incompetence can only be temporarily disguised.

    Herein lies the problem: while it is true that you are more likely to be taken seriously if you “dress the part”, you are equally likely to take yourself too seriously. Convinced of how professional you are because you are adhering to whatever fashion currently dictates a professional should look like, you are more likely to make inaccurate assessments of the significance and wisdom of your strategy as well as your capacity to deliver, and are less likely to question that which ought be questioned in order to achieve the best possible outcome. Relaxed, confident individuals tend to make relaxed, confident decisions. Overconfident individuals tend to make overconfident decisions.

    Hence, those who choose to include a professional’s attire in their assessment of that individual’s professionalism ultimately punish themselves. They are more likely to rely upon someone who over-promises and under-delivers, and to take flawed advice from someone with an inaccurate assessment of their own knowledge and expertise. In short, they are more likely to make poor decisions because they have chosen to be influenced by the superficial and not by substance.

  • Yeah, there needs to be less focus on what someone is wearing and more on what they’re saying. Take a chill pill, ya’ll.

  • Isn’t it funny how the smallest things always raise the biggest conversations? 48 comments on jeans vs. Dockers! 😉

    I don’t speak in public all that often, but when I do I tend to dress to the crowd. If I’m presenting to a bunch of accountants, I’m definitely going suit and tie. On the other hand, if I’m presenting at our local Social Media Breakfast, it’s probably jeans and a jacket. If I wore a suit to an event like that, I’d be mocked and ridiculed (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not much). In my mind, it’s all about the audience. Just like in your example above. You do want to exude professionalism and success–but for some, that doesn’t mean a suit and tie anymore. I think that perception is changing a bit.


  • This is vintage, Gini. You know how to push buttons. As I said on Twitter last night, I violently (yet respectfully) disagree with you. I’ll take a well-tailored person in jeans over train wreck in a suit (which is, unfortunatly, the norm).

    I could go on for days about this. I have an entire schpiel on dress codes. They are totally absurd. Not because people shouldn’t look nice at work; but rather because it frightens me that people can’t sort that out on their own. If people can’t figure out how to dress, what else can’t they figure out?

    Finally, I’m trying to remember something Alex Bogusky said. I’ll butcher it … basically he found out CPB had lost a big pitch, and part of the reason was that Alex wore jeans to the pitch. His response: That’s probably a really good thing, because I only own jeans, so this would have been an ongoing problem.

    And like him or not, Alex has a seat at the big boy’s table. Jeans and all.

    See you at PR + MKTG camp. And yes, I will be in jeans! 😉


  • Jelena was the first to mention Steve Jobs but he’s the exception not the rule. I am not Steve and neither are “you,” not sure we can “get away” with that.

    @Ryan Cox I share your attitude about telling me what I should or should not wear. For job interviews I always wore a very nice, tailored pantsuit. Why? 1) I was more comfortable in pants 2) it was harder to find skirts of appropriate length and the biggest reason 3) if you did not want me JUST because I wore pants vs. a skirt to the interview, you were not the kind of employer for me. While I believe that “work and words” and worth are what matters most, so does appearance to many. If people (clients, customers, employers) can’t get past a shabby or “unprofessional” appearance to see the quality of the work, the talent won’t matter. Yes it’s their loss, but in a way yours too.

    @Teresa Basich @David Griner ITA you both, it depends on the culture, and given the speaker and nature of the event, jeans were probably workplace appropriate for this presentation. (Sorry Gini.) Many events these days, whether for doctors, lawyers or other professionals actually promote “business casual” as a selling feature of the event. People are taking their valuable time away from their practice and while the conference is still “work” a more relaxed attire can help facilitate a better meeting, especially something like networking with social media pros.

    I know I’ve attended after-hours gatherings and TweetUps in jeans, felt perfectly comfortable and fit right in with everyone else. For a summertime casual luncheon with colleagues here in Hotlanta, I’ll push things with pressed Capri pants, cute sandals and top; possibly too casual but then, that’s also my transparent personality I guess.

    My business dress: As a solo PR and something of a creative type, I have done the jeans with blouse and blazer thing, for a casual meeting with a current, “casual dress” client but never someone new. While I rarely bust out with a full suit, I opt for pants and a nice top/jacket. As others have mentioned, I am oft overdressed vs. clients I meet in Dockers and Polos but that’s how it goes. Now if I were speaking, or meeting a bunch of suit-wearing execs on their turf, I’d put on a suit … but that’s what would make ME more comfortable, not about anyone else’s expectations. FWIW.

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  • While I don’t disagree with your underlying premise, I don’t understand how you got from A to B. Avinash Kaushik does not work “in our industry.” He’s a rock star in the web analytics space. He HAS a seat at the management table, jeans and all.Even within our industry, Peter Shankman wears jeans that cause no concern — he’s made millions with his product and has the seat at the table. People like Peter and Seth Godin can wear whatever they like; it does not diminish their EARNED reputations, nor does it rub off on any of us. Even Steve Crescenzo continues to get booked by top organizations and listened to by CEOs.

    I wear a suit (with a t-shirt, no tie, and it hasn’t hurt my entree into the C-Suite).

    In fact, if anybody was more concerned with my wardrobe than the substance I had to offer, I probably wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.

    But for anyone not already in a position where they have earned their reputation, I agree: Dress for success.

    However, tying this to Kaushik is absurd, apples and oranges.

  • I like dressing up for everything, it helps me play the part of who I want to become- and it makes me feel a little bit like a mafioso.*

    *It makes me feel a lot like a mafioso

  • Gini- you did strike a nerve on this one. I’m a big fan of jeans, and wear them a lot at work. Partly it is because I do most of my meetings by phone, but when I meet with certain clients, I dress the part, but as an NBA coach said to me once when I was dressed up for an event, “You can’t polish a turd.”.

    I think the way you dress today is almost part of who you are and your brand. If I were a first-time presenter, I would likely ditch the jeans, especially if I didn’t know the audience. That said, if I got more notoriety and and comfortable with the audience, I could see myself gravitate to jeans.

    I will say that the realtor argument doesn’t hold ANY water. People see through the fancy clothes in a hurry — I just went through the home-buying/selling process, and one this was certain it didn’t matter how they were dressed.

    Seth Godin came to Utah a few months back and he presented to a large crowd in jeans. It didn’t bother me one bit.

  • It depends on the situation I think, and also how you wear them. I’ve had countless meetings where the participants are in jeans, but they’ve been a dark, crisp wash with a blazer, tailored shirt and nice shoes (for both men and women). The faded, artfully-torn jeans should be kept to the weekend, no matter what. Now, if you’re in a panel with higher-ups from other industries than tech/social media, where jeans aren’t the norm, then yes, I’d say nix the jeans and go with a nice suit.

  • Alright, something that keeps coming up that is perceived as what I said needs to be clear. I only started thinking about jeans on speakers when I saw Avinash speak. I’ve seen more speakers in jeans, than even business casual, since then. It does not detract away from the message that he was delivering, nor does it make me critique his content. I think he’s brilliant, and you would know that if you’ve read the blog post I wrote right after he spoke. It simply served the purpose to make me aware that more and more people are wearing jeans when they speak and how I feel about it.

    That being said, the market research I have right here in these comments is that the majority, certainly not all, but the majority of comments agree with me. So why would you want to risk losing a piece of business because you’re dressed in jeans? Sure, you could argue that you wouldn’t want that client (as was referenced above), but enough of us feel so strongly about this that it’s a simple risk/reward thing. Is it worth the risk to alienate people when you could show up in pressed slacks and an ironed button-down shirt, or a skirt, heels, and a jacket??

    And, for those of you asking why not jeans with a crisp shirt and a jacket? Because not everyone can get away with that look. For some people, jeans just make them look sloppy, no matter how they dress them up.

  • Great post and great topic!

    As a self-employed and self proclaimed “Corporate Hippie”, I love the fact that I always stand up for what I believe in and never put on a fake face in any situation. Being a professional Recruiter, I am probably one of the most laid back people in my industry. I love jeans! I wear them more than anything in my closet. (with the exception of my jammies which I wear everyday when I’m working from home)

    Would I wear them during a business meeting? HELL NO.  yes, I’m yelling here.

    People seem to misunderstand the real purpose behind “dressing up”. It’s not just a costume you put on to “look the part”. It’s not something you do because it’s what others would expect of you…or because you want people to “think” you’re successful. These are things that some people think about, sure. But not all of us!

    The main reason to dress professional for business is to show respect. It is a huge sign of respect when someone is taking the time to look nice to meet with you. Whether it is during a presentation, a meeting with a client or on an interview. Just because I’m self-employed doesn’t mean that when I’m interviewing a candidate, I can wear jeans but expect them to wear a suit. I dress up when meeting with anyone for professional reasons because we both took time out of our schedules. I know they will “dress the part” and I want to show them respect by putting in just as much effort.

    When I see a presenter in jeans vs. someone in a suit, it tells me that one of them cared more about comfort. The guy in jeans may be envied for being able to “do what he wants”, but the guy in the suit has more of the attention and respect of the audience.

    -My professional opinion.

  • Well, Veronica Ludwig beat me to it. I agree with her 100%. We’re talking about respect here. The “audience” will never say, “Ooh, he’s (she’s) in a suit, and we’re all in jeans–how weird is that?” Some speakers may wish to “show” the audience how they’re cool and “hip” and “fit in” with the crowd, but this is probably not the best way to achieve this. Maybe one day it won’t matter, but for today, just the fact that this single issue can generate SO MUCH talk, is validation that we’re “not there yet.”

  • After pondering this one for awhile, I think I have come to peace with it.
    Upon first read, I was a bit remiss to agree. I am a lover of jeans, and being casual. I have a firm belief that your work should speak for itself, and you should be judged for content and ability.
    That said, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am quick to judge, have a very bad habit of sizing people up, and often judge a book by its cover. Thus, if you look sloppy, I am likely not to give you the credit you may deserve. I agree that it is important to dress for success, and especially in the role of “public speaking” it is important to look the part, and you do not want to put up barriers between you and the audience before you even open your mouth.
    So with all this said, unless your reputation proceeds you in a good way, you have written multiple bestsellers in your field, or you work in fashion, leave the jeans in the closet, and “suit up” for your next speaking engagement.

  • As I noted in a blog post today, if you can demonstrate that your PR efforts contribute to the company’s bottom line, you’ll get a seat at the management table in cutoffs and flip-flops.

  • Oh, by the way, your reputation PRECEDES you while you might PROCEED on your path to an improved reputation.

  • Molli Megasko

    I was also able to see Avinash Kaushik speak this year and as a young adult I was surprised to see him in jeans. As he walked on stage I immediately got out my Mac and started checking my email thinking he was not taking me seriously so why should I? Turns out, he blew my mind and was the best speaker I’ve seen in a long time, but he did almost lose me in the beginning.

    With that in mind, unless you’re an amazing public speaker with multiple book publishings and teach on the side, I wouldn’t recommend such casual dress or you might lose me to my iTunes.

  • Gini,

    I agree with you. I never understood the term “Business Casual” it’s an oxymoron. There isn’t anything (or there shouldn’t be) “casual” about business. Kinda like “Petty cash” There’s nothing petty about it!

    Anyway… I’m of the opinion if you want your audience to take you seriously you should dress the part. If, on the other hand, you’re more interested in projecting an image rather than your message than go ahead and sport jeans.

    I make my living in this space (public speaking and training) and couldn’t imagine speaking to a large group in jeans without alienating at least a few.

    Ok enough of the rant. I gotta get out of my PJ’s and get to work!

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  • WOW! So Gini, does it make a difference to you if the speaking engagement is on a weekend?

    I’m not taking a stance here, but Shel’s cutoff and flip-flops comment gave me a flashback. I once interviewed a job candidate wearing a tube top.Granted it was actually part of a suit. Designer, I’m sure. She had great experience, but we couldn’t get past it. To this day (about 12 years later) when I’m catching up with former colleagues, we still laugh about Tube Top Ginny.

    Now… time to go workout so I can get back in those pretty suits. Or jeans.

  • Gini’s not the only person who feels one should dress for the role of speaker. At Counselors Academy, our pre-con speaker apologized for removing his jacket (it was a little hot and humid in Asheville). He’s a social media advisor and a friend of many in the room. I appreciated that he respected us/his audience/me enough to dress professionally.

  • I hear what everyone is saying and all have valid points. I think the jeans issue is often a generational concern. I faced that from my former CEO until I wore dark wash jeans with a blazer and she didn’t believe I was wearing “blue jeans” when I pointed it out. Once she realized jeans don’t have to be sloppy, she was fine with it. I think one can be professional while looking quite smartly attired in jeans. The jeans have to fit, be dark wash, and paired with shirt/suit jacket or sweater set and nice shoes/boots. What matters to me is how the person carries themselves and the confidence they give off. How many times have we all run into folks who look the part, but have no real knowledge to back them up?

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  • Interesting topic!

    I volunteered at the recent IABC World Conference in Toronto (my backyard) on the Sunday and I noticed that most of the attendees dressed in business casual, some from the more hipper ends of the community were wearing high end denim and the more conservative organizations were dressed professionally.

    My personal defacto office wardrobe is either dark rinse jeans in perfect conditions, khakis or dress pants and a nice shirt, I don’t think my laptop is going to care all that much how I look. If I am off to meet a client for the first time, I wear a suit and tie. If it’s follow up meetings, suit with a nice shirt minus the tie.

    When it comes to public speaking and in terms of wardrobe, my first question I will ask is who is the audience and what is the context. Showing up to Podcamp in professional attire is kinda dumb, just as giving a keynote speech in jeans and a t-shirt at a world conference would be dumb. My rule of thumb is this, unless you are Steve Jobs or an industry superstar, dress one notch better than the audience you are going before.

    I do have one parting observation, I have been in situations where I have been wearing nice jeans, a crisp white shirt and blazer and my contact looks like he slept in his suit that’s two sizes too big for him.

  • You can make your decision as to whether you hire people based on clothes, I will make mine on ability and attitude – judging people and firms on what matters most.

    This seems really superficial to me, but its your choice to let your peers know how important it is to dress to your personal liking and impose that view on others. Yes, know your audience applies here, but for this much energy to be wasted on this topic is a shame and feels like a step backwards to the Elizabethan era.

    Wondering if you judge people by their cultural garb such as hijab’s and bright colored African dress too? Is that appropriate in your world? What’s the difference? none. Jeans are a part of our culture too. What sort of signal are you trying to send when you wear an Armani suit, that you’re rich and pretentious and better then everyone else?

    Where do you draw the line?

    What makes one form of dress appropriate and another inappropriate? Your opinion, which as the saying goes…

    What ever happened to don’t judge a book by its cover? Too bad so many people feel its ok to be so judgmental of others.

  • You ever hear you cant judge a book by its cover – It’s never what you look like that matters. Sure everyone should be presentable and somewhat put together but come on that attitude to biz is so 80s . im not talking about looking like you just got off the beach, but if people are that caught up judging solely on attire, you probably dont want to work with them. (IMO)

  • Everyone once in a while I am stunned. Am I surprised when a post taking a stand on abortion gets lots of angry comments for and against, no. I once read a post about the “hand cut dovetails” being overrated. This was a cardinal sin among woodworkers…who knew.

    I agree with Gini, but I am not worked into a frenzy about the post. I appreciate passion and perhaps taking a stand on jeans is akin to clubbing a baby seal with an ivory club, made by a member of the Nazi party, who chews with his mouth open, but I am not sure it is.

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  • Let me disclose that Avinash is a close friend of mine.

    But I won’t let that get too much in the way of comment ☺

    I’m a professional speaker as well as the owner of a Marketing agency (I speak as a means to grow the business and be an evangelist for the Digital Marketing space). I have representation from two of the largest talent bureaus. When presenting for a client, part of the contract informs the speaker of the dress attire. It is incumbent on the speaker to then decide how to proceed.

    I’ve done events where the attire is listed as casual, but I still wear a dress jacket (by choice). I’ve shared the stage with almost anybody and everybody who speaks (from Bill Clinton and Richard Branson to Seth Godin and Dr. Phil) and I think you’re missing a critical component: even at a serious business event, speakers are both entertainment and information. Thankfully, the world has people like Kaushik in it who can do both – magnificently. The problem is that too many people “dress for success” but their content and information is socks with holes in them. Part of Avinash’s appeal (and others who wear jeans as well – like Steve Jobs) is the humility of the look and tone of voice… it’s as much a part of the content and connection with the audience as the content. Avinash’s presentation screams, “I am just like you and you can do this!”

    It’s easy to pull off jeans with great content. It’s impossible to pull off a suit and tie and be completely boring and drab. Based on the 80+ events and hundred of speakers I see every year, I’d take jeans any day.

    • Hi Mitch. I’ll disclose that I’m a big fan of yours AND of Avinash. My point was not that he can’t get away with wearing jeans to speak (he can). My point was that some people cannot and that, his wearing jeans, just opened to my eyes to the fact that some people look great in them, while others do not.

      I would never wear jeans to speak. Ever. But part of that is because I’m little and I’m cute and I’m a woman and I have a hard enough time with those three things to be taken seriously. So I feel like I have to dress the grown-up part, just so people take me seriously when I open my mouth.

      That being said, you’re right there are plenty of people who can wear an ill-fitting suit and have it come off as badly as wearing jeans and a rumpled shirt.

      When I wrote this, I’d just come back from a conference where a couple of the speakers literally looked like they’d have some crazy night, threw off their clothes, and then put them back on in time to take the stage. I was irritated and felt like those people didn’t respect their audience.

      This post clearly got a TON of comments and, while most people agreed with me, my POV has changed a bit. There are plenty of people who can get away with jeans and a nicely pressed button-down (my friend Ian Sohn spoke recently in jeans, a sweater, and a tie and he looked fantastic). But there also plenty of people who wear jeans because they claim its their company’s culture and they look really, really terrible.

      I said this in the post, and I’ll say it again…my mom’s advice is always to dress one level above your audience. It’s better to be overdressed than to be underdressed because, as much as we all say it doesn’t happen, most people do judge a book by its cover.

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  • udayan

    It’s amazing how many times people have to re-state the obvious. What you are stating in this blog is no different from what my career counselor told me while I was still a college student … and now that I am reading this in your blog, it is surprising to see how many people have simply forgotten the basics!

  • stamiuz

    Wondering if you judge people by their cultural garb such as hijab’s and bright colored African dress too? Is that appropriate in your world? What’s the difference? none. Jeans are a part of our culture too. What sort of signal are you trying to send when you wear an Armani suit, that you’re rich and pretentious and better then everyone else?


    roth ira | ira limits

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