Presentation Pitfalls #2 – Not looking the part

First impressions last.  It’s sad but true, and we are all guilty of it to some extent.  The first impression a person makes on you tends to colour your opinion of them, and may determine whether you engage with them or not.  It can be overcome, but very often if someone makes a poor first impression, you won’t give them a chance to make a second one.

I recall a lovely guy I knew some years ago.  He looked like a street fighter – big, beefy, and my first impression was that his few brain cells were in his fists.  I was very apprehensive about approaching him, yet I needed to work with him.  Over time I found that he was in fact amazingly bright, smart, and with a great sense of humour.  A genuinely warm, talented, nice guy, but wearing the look of a thug – which was of course not his fault, although he did choose his clothes and his crew-cut hair which accentuated the image.  That taught me an important lesson about not judging a book by its cover.

Sadly, when you are presenting, people don’t have the chance to get to know you so well, and you may only have one chance to speak to them, so those first impressions count for a lot.  It is said that you have seven seconds to make a positive impression.  Waste them, and you’re toast.  If in the second half of your presentation you are making amazing points and doing a fantastic job, it won’t help if the audience already switched off their attention and switched on their smartphones.

Elsewhere in this blog I’ll talk about making a great start to your presentation, which is always key.  But before you even open your mouth, there’s something absolutely vital which you can’t afford to forget if you want to make a good impression:


Recently a presenter entered the amphitheatre and introduced himself.  He seemed nice enough, and he proved himself competent in his subject, but it was impossible for any of us to take him seriously.  Why?  He was wearing a polo shirt.  What’s wrong with that, you might ask?  Nothing, in the right context – but he was wearing it WITH A TIE.  It was all we could do to keep ourselves from laughing.

Likewise, if you drastically overdress then you will look out of place and not connect with your audience.  Worse, if you turn up in jeans and a T-shirt to present to the board of a European bank, don’t expect to last very long.

As a general rule, try to dress just a little better than the audience.  Not so much as to make them uncomfortable, but enough to make you look respectable.  This is vital for the third key of communication: Be Respected.  Unlike the guy in the polo shirt with a tie.

To complete the impression, pay attention to yourself.  Ensure you are properly groomed – neat clean hair, clean-shaven or neatly-trimmed (for the guys) or with make-up which is appropriate for you (for the ladies – and make-up isn’t necessary or appropriate for everyone, but in many cultures it can help some ladies to look impressive).  The presenter who looks as if he’s just come in from a hurricane through a hedge backwards is not going to make a great impression – so if rain is forecast, don’t forget an umbrella.

To finish with, here’s a small piece of advice from one of my preferred bands (kudos to the first commenter who recognises the band and the song!):

“Be someone someone would want to be”

While you are on the stage, you need to inspire respect.  If the audience looks down on you because of the way you look, or your lack of preparation, or your hesitant speech, then they won’t respect you.  If you can get all that right, starting with the first impression, then you can impress your audience so much that they would like to be like you, to be able to present like you – and that will help them to like you and admire you.

And if they like you and admire you, then they are far more likely to listen to you and receive your message loud and clear.

First impressions last.  Make them count.

3 Responses to Presentation Pitfalls #2 – Not looking the part

  1. Ian Whittle says:

    It’s gotta be Marillion 😉

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