What Should Motivational Speakers Wear On Stage?

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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Forget the speech – what do I wear?

For every hour I spend on my speech, I spend three hours figuring out what to wear. Yes, I’m that kind of woman. But I think that what you wear is just as important as what you say. For motivational speakers, what we wear is part of our brand. It’s part of our personality. It’s part of the package we sell. And too many speakers ignore this part of the equation and opt for a “uniform” that does nothing to set us apart, but rather pushes us into a chorus line of speakers all dressed alike.

What you wear is part of your brand as a motivational speaker.

When I first started speaking I was advised by many other motivational speakers to “dress the part.” And apparently “the part” involved drab suits that made my butt look like two pigs fighting under a blanket. I wore cheap suits (because I couldn’t afford thousand-dollar suits), sensible shoes, and wore my hair short and frosted and bluntly cut like the other women. I looked around to make sure I blended in with the others.

Blending in is the kiss of death. People buy speakers with PERSONALITY. Let your clothes show your personality, not lack of it.

It took me years to learn that valuable lesson – that blending in gets you nowhere. And finally I cast off the uniform, took off the face, and set out to be me. Problem was, I wasn’t sure who I really was. I sadly realized (in my forties) that I had never ever thought about what I wanted to wear – only what I thought I was supposed to wear.

So I began trying out new looks – boots, hair extensions, hair dye, bling, etc.  In fact, I’m still in this stage of figuring out who I am and who I want to be. I am NOT looking around to copy someone else’s look – but rather finding my own style. My own brand. My own personality.

You have to be willing to take risks – including your clothing.

The reason so many speakers look alike is that they play it safe. And I don’t think there’s any room for safe if you want to soar. You have to try new things – including new looks on stage.  And, yes, you will make mistakes. You will look back at pictures and gasp in horror that you wore that outfit. You will look in the mirror and think you look great, and then see pictures of yourself on stage and find you look like a carnival clown.

I wish the mirror and pictures would agree on what I look like.

If there was one thing I wish I had been doing all along, it was taking pictures of myself at home in different outfits. I’ve just recently started doing that and it’s really helpful. My fashionista sister came over one day and helped me go through my closet to figure out what to put together to create funky unusual outfits that fit my personality and style. I tried on every outfit, down to the earrings, and she took my picture on my cell phone. Later I went through every one to see which were flattering, and which weren’t. Now I have a portfolio of outfits in a photo album on my cell phone. When it’s time to go on the road, I pick the pictures I like, and it makes packing so much easier. Now, whenever I have a little free time, I try on a different outfit and have my husband take a picture.

Break the rules, but don’t be sloppy.

I think there’s room for almost any outfit you can imagine. Even jeans. I don’t think you have to look like a walking magazine ad, but I don’t think there’s room for sloppy. And that should be your guide. If you wear jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt and flip flops, then you are telling your audience that you really didn’t care enough to bother. Unless you’re speaking to the college crowd – and even then I would hesitate to be dressed just like them.

Keep your audience and your message in mind.

I also think that you have to consider your message and your audience. If you are a financial planner, you may want your outfit to speak more credibility and sensibility than personality. I would be leery of the financial planner who came in dressed like Elton John. I think if you’re speaking to a group of people on the bottom of the food chain, you might not want to come wearing your best diamonds.

If you’re a comedian like me, I think you have a pass (if not an obligation) to come dressed for fun. I speak about coming out of your comfort zone. What kind of message does it send if I don’t walk my talk and come out of my comfort zone in the way I dress too?

It’s not just on stage but in your headshots where your outfit has selling potential.

Most of the selling in my business model happens before they ever pick up the phone and call me. It happens when they find me online and go to my website. They don’t just go here to see what I do and how I do it. They go here to meet ME. This is my chance to sell my personality, which is just (if not more so) as important as my message. So why would I make my headshot look like my church directory picture or the latest glamour shot at the mall?

Let your pictures show your personality. Let them sing fun. They have a powerful influence on the buyer. When I’m creating new headshots (and website material) I try NOT to think “realtor headshot” but instead think “album cover.”  I try to see myself as the performer over the business woman. And I do believe that business women can (and should) dare to dress differently. Isn’t it time to break some rules?

Continue your brand everywhere.

I know that some celebrities in their personal time walk around looking like the walking dead. And that’s fine. None of my business. But when I travel, I meet a lot of people who have the potential to become buyers. So why not carry out the brand everywhere?

One morning, as a new mom, I went to the mall still wearing my pajamas thinking surely I wouldn’t see anybody. Someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “Aren’t you that speaker we hired for our staff event last year?”  I was mortified. I looked like a picture on the post office wall. I’m sure the woman (my client) didn’t really judge me for my appearance. At least not consciously. But my brand was affected nonetheless. From that moment on I decided to walk my brand all the time – even when I was sure I wouldn’t see anybody. You never know when that person beside you has the opportunity to refer you or book you. Don’t waste that opportunity. Sure, it’s not always the most comfortable option – but I don’t get paid to be comfortable.

Am I skinny enough? Pretty enough?

Don’t believe the world’s lie that you have to be skinny to be on stage. Or that you have to be pretty to have impact. Or that ugly people don’t belong in the spotlight. Imagine every person you really respect and value in this world. I would venture to guess that it’s not based on how skinny they were.

Sure, some speakers have an edge because they have “the look” that the buyer is seeking. But “the look” doesn’t get them very far – or last very long. I would rather have talent and a powerful message and a good heart than Barbie’s body any day.

Yes, I spend a lot of time working on my look. And I’m a junkie for hair products and makeup. But I know that’s not why I get hired. It’s not why I get standing ovations. And it’s not why I get booked over and over. The package has nothing to do with it.

Your audience is more concerned with what you say, not what you wear.

Don’t stress too much about what you wear. The audience is really more concerned with what you say. Sure they will notice a wrinkle in your suit. They may not like your shoes, or think your hair is tacky. But at the end of the day, they will focus on your message. If they go away thinking only about your outfit, then you didn’t have a compelling message that would give them something else to think about.

I have worn plenty of horrendous outfits that still ended with a standing ovation.

And you may decide at the end of the day, that you want the suit and the sensible shoes. And that’s fine. It’s your choice. Your look. That’s the point. Be you. It’s the only part that’s not taken.





  • Great post Kelly like it here you actually reveal most of the secrets related to the ART of motivationaal speaking keep it up like it.

  • Love the photo portfolio idea – that’s great for anyone who is in front of people on a regular basis. Great tips Kelly!