Personal grooming & presentation

- handy checklists for public speakers

Here's a personal grooming and preparation guide for speakers. The points on the checklists may seem pedantically obvious, even boring, but they're needed all the same. Sometimes it is the most obvious that is overlooked and goes on to cause a major problem. So here they are, without apologies!

Retro graphic of a pair of women joyfully looking at a checklist.

On this page

  1. The "whys" and "whatsits" 
  2. A personal grooming checklist
  3. Guidelines for clothing, shoes and accessories
  4. Personal preparation checklist
  5. Emergency care kit
  6. Final preparation checklist

The "whys" & "whatsits"

Taking care of personal grooming or looking good IS part of delivering an effective speech.

In writing that I'm reminded of my Mother and her concern over how we appeared.

There were five children in our family. Getting everybody ready and out the door on time to get to a function was a triumph of organization. On the way down the path usually someone was stopped to tuck in a shirt, have a bit of sticky-up hair flattened or a knee inspection. Then we grew up. Personal grooming became our own responsibility.

And therein lurks the potential problem.

Personal grooming = personal interpretations

Everybody's personal grooming and presentation is not equal. There are generally agreed upon guidelines but their interpretation varies. Put a widely diverse group of people in a room and give them a quiz about it and they'll more than likely all agree on the basics: clean hair, shoes, tidy dress etc.

But get the same people to dress as if they were all going to give a similar speech at a similar venue to a similar audience and guess what? You already know the answer.

Personal presentation does have to be spelled out. And for those of you think it's a petty concern and only of interest to those who want to blend their individuality to bland, think again.

You have a 5 second count-down 5-4-3-2-1...

We know from research a person has approximately 3-5 seconds to make an initial positive impact on strangers.*

While we may like to think we are not so 'shallow' or so easily influenced one way or another, we are. We judge people on their appearances. We do it all the time, but we especially do it when we meet someone new.

  • Bad hair day?
  • Missed a bit shaving? 
  • Sloppy shoe shine?

We've noticed, and logged it. We might not be literally ticking off the boxes on a personal grooming check list but the reality is, we do have a metaphorical sharpened pencil poised for action the moment we set eyes on them.

*Science says people decide these 12 things within seconds of meeting you

So what is on a personal grooming checklist?

Retro graphic - two women looking at a checklist smiling
  • Face
  • Hair
  • Clothes
  • Shoes
  • Accessories

All of these elements combine to give the initial impression.

To make it positive each has to work harmoniously with the other. But more than that, the total look must be appropriate for the occasion.

'What is appropriate presentation',  is where the danger hides. If you've ever been to a party where everyone is dressed casually, except you, you'll understand.

If you don't know, ask what is suitable dress for the occasion. Make sure you get a clear answer and act on it.

Your goal is to present yourself attractively while not detracting from your purpose; presenting a speech. Your choice of clothing and grooming should support that. Too much (as in "over-the-top") and your appearance gets all the attention. The same happens with too little effort.

Guidelines for clothing, shoes and accessories

In addition to suiting the occasion:

  • Clothing must be comfortable. You have to be able to breathe and move, so nothing too tight.
  • Clothes must be functional. Check loose buttons, dodgy zips, hanging threads, hems that have come undone...
  • And they must be freshly pressed or dry cleaned
  • Further more, those clothes must look all-of-a-piece: the skirt goes with the blouse, the shirt belongs with the trousers. (If you're unsure, get a second opinion from someone whose clothing choice you know is sound.)
  • Keep accessories simple. This is not the time to wear the string of little jingly brass bells brought back from a recent trip.
  • Shoes must be comfortable and freshly cleaned.
    (Avoid breaking in a new pair of shoes while standing to talk. It's painful!)

Personal grooming preparation checklist

Retro graphic of a women's hand with a piece of string tied around the index finger

Prepare everything you need several working days in advance.

  • Go through your wardrobe to sort out the possibilities and try each of them on.
  • Be sure to try the whole outfit, shoes and accessories included.
  • Check each selected item for damage and cleanliness.
  • If anything needs to go to the cleaners or be washed, do it.
  • If anything needs minor mending, do it.
  • And do it sooner rather than later. You don't need the added hassle of trying to sew a button on while driving to the venue.

Now turn your attention to your hair

Do you need a haircut or a trim and tidy up?
Get that done earlier rather than later too.

Don't plan a radical change too close to your speech date.
If you don't like the result, you might not have the time to do anything about it.

Choose a style you feel comfortable with, one that you do not have to worry about and lets you get on with your task.

A key consideration is making sure the audience can see all of your face. If you have a long fringe, it may mask your eyes. Like wise long loose hair may cover your face while speaking.

The audience needs to 'read' your face while they listen to you talk. Covering or partially covering up makes the communication process harder. It may also send unintentional signals. The audience might  interpret you as 'hiding behind your hair', self-conscious and unsure of yourself. While that may be at partially true you don't need to advertise it. You're going to stand tall, face them: 'feel the fear and do it anyway'!


Wear what is appropriate to go with your clothes and the occasion.

If you are going to be lit while talking you may need more than you usually wear. Stage lights can drain all the color from your face. Get advice if you are unsure. That applies to men as well as women!

Full dress rehearsal

The final step in your personal grooming preparation is to have at least one full dress rehearsal wearing everything as you planned it. This will let you know whether or not your choices are suitable and comfortable.

If you have to stop your presentation to push straps back where they belong or keep tucking in a shirt whose tail is too short, change your choice. These clothes will be distraction rather than an aid.

And while you are still in preparation mode, get ready an...

Emergency personal grooming and care kit

This is a speaker's first aid bag that you take with you to the venue. They're great to have as a backstop to meet the just-in-case scenario.

The first items to put in are any prescribed medicines you use on a regular daily basis.

Other useful items are:

  • a packet of tissues
  • a couple of small safety pins
  • a small emergency sewing kit
  • some regular painkillers to knock a beginning headache out
  • a deodorant
  • a small water bottle
  • a comb
  • a little mirror
  • a couple of energy bars...

And NOW let's fast forward.

You're ready to go. Quite rightly you aim to be there with plenty of time to spare. You've done all the preparation. Your personal grooming and presentation is superb. You will pass the 3 -5 second positive impression test easily. Your speech is entertaining and informative. The audience is excitedly looking forward to your presentation. Here's one...

Final checklist

1950s retro graphic - two women looking at a list

Complete it as you go out the door.

Do you have:

  • the address of the venue?
  • the name of a contact person there and their phone number?
  • all your speech notes or cue cards?
  • your props?
  • your first aid bag?
  • AND anything else you might need: wallet, phone, keys..?

That's it! Good luck and remember to breathe!