Business Casual Dress on the Platform?

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Kevin Quinley asks:

Do you have any informal guidelines about what to wear and NOT to wear when you've been told to dress "business casual" at a speaking function? Do you still dress up or go in business casual? Do you dress above those you're speaking to or dress like the rest? Any particular fashion faux pas to avoid? (E.g., one article said never wear short-sleeved shirts, even for business casual, if you want to be taken seriously. Do you agree?)

-- Richard Marker

Business casual can mean different things in different places. (For men, anything from T-shirts and khakis to blazers with dress shirts.) I err on the side of arriving wearing the dressier interpretation of "business casual" -- a sport jacket, or blazer, etc -- and even have a tie handy. If the group is clearly more informal, I begin by taking my jacket off as I begin my presentation. My general rule is to respect the group by being "dressy" without looking as if I am at the wrong meeting.

-- Mina Bancroft

Attire suits topic, audience age, sophistication, venue. Look under control, a leader. Dress one level up, unless they are dressed like slobs, then two levels. Stay simple, clean lines, solid colors. Add layers for authority -- vest, sweater, jacket


  • Bare legs, feet on display
  • Shorts or Short Skirts -- above eye level on platform
  • Moving accessories -- bangs, earrings, scarves. Don't fuss with them
  • Hats, short sleeves, loosened ties. Wear one or don't: loosened ties look drunk, not casual

-- Diane Parente

Everything depends on your business, your message, the location, the situation and, of course, your personality. Look at the difference between Larry Winget and Nido Qubein or Patricia Fripp and Mikki Williams. The most important lesson I've learned in twenty-plus years of professional image consulting is that no one style works for everyone.

Your first job is to ask your client to describe exactly what constitutes "business casual" for this specific group. I dislike the idea of "dressing above" your audience. You should always dress professionally, but for "business casual" you can relax your look somewhat. Remember, it is always "business" first and "casual" second. Err on the side of formality. Business casual works if worn with class and taste.

-- Jeff Davidson

The term "business casual" holds no meaning for the speaker. You must literally ask the meeting planner what he/she would like you to wear. I've spoken dozens of times at conferences where the group's flyer said "business casual" but speakers were asked to wear standard business attire.

-- Alan Parisse

Use the trial lawyer's rule: "Dress so appropriately for the circumstance and your role in it, that no one especially notices your clothing. They focus on you and your message." Generally, that means dressing slightly above the audience. If they are in slacks and a polo, I would put a blazer over my polo. One caveat, dress in a manner consistent with the other speakers.

Whoever said "never wear short-sleeved" shirts is being too rigid.

-- Gene Swindell

Our mastermind group discussed this topic last month. We're finding more casual dress on the platform today ... fewer dates for ties and business suits. When a client says business casual, our group believes the speaker should dress "slightly above" the audience ... in other words, our clothes and shoes should be a higher grade ... not a closeout special from a discount store. After all, we are the professionals and we need to look the part. And ... NO SHORT SLEEVES!!!

-- Dawn Waldrop

How do you want to be perceived? The three levels of dress consist of Power Professional, Professional and Business Casual. There are also many levels of business casual. Always dress one level above. If client says they are casual then you present yourself Professional. They do not want you dressed like them.

What they are saying [by business casual] is, do not come in a Power Professional outfit! (Business suit jacket/pants-men or jacket/skirt-women same color) You can wear jacket/pants or skirt different color. As soon as a woman wears pants she becomes casual. A woman is much more powerful in the 'appropriate' length skirt or dress. Yes - always long sleeves in a presentation situation.

-- Cher Holton

The question of how to dress for presentations has become a roulette game! Yesterday (July 20th) was the first time this entire year that I have worn a professional business suit for speaking! It is definitely moving to business casual, even at places like IBM! I always ask my meeting planner what the dress code will be, and what the expectation of the speaker's appearance will be. (Yesterday was a prime example: the audience was casual, but my meeting planner told me that speakers always wore suits.)

My personal rule of thumb is to dress about one level above what the majority of the audience will be wearing. For example, if they will be in business casual, I will wear a very nice pant suit or dress with a jacket. If they are in casual (jeans, T-shirts), I will wear a more casual pantsuit or a casual but professional-type dress. In today's world, I'm finding that men can wear polo shirts, or shirts with short sleeves, and still be seen as very professional. The rules have definitely changed, but the one thing that remains is the need to look professional, confident and competent. My biggest exception is when I do team building -- often I am in jeans, because that's the only appropriate thing to have on!

-- Lynda Curtin

I like to dress to be comfortable for me. I find that a mix and match wardrobe works. It can be funky or formal depending on the group.

  • Approach - Mix and match coordinates, high quality
  • Excellent quality dress slacks in black.
  • Black leather skirt with black cotton/Lycra tights. I never wear hose.
  • An unstructured jacket (wool or silk) in a great colour -- green, red, teal, black. I love linen but it wrinkles too much.
  • Fun silk blouses -- interesting prints, wrinkles fall out.
  • Velour/Lycra t-shirts/t-necks -- they don't wrinkle.
  • Black Leather vest.
  • Wild socks - I don't worry about the print matching my outfit. And, I buy several pairs all the same to save on trying to match them up when I wash them.
  • Funky/Hip shoes that are comfortable -- black, red, green
  • Great accessories.
  • Great handbag.
  • Red lipstick.

This season I will likely add a black leather jacket for indoor wear, perhaps a red leather vest.

-- Philippa Gamse

I just learned a big lesson the hard way:

A major corporate client asked me to be a resource at a trade show for their staff, and to wear their T-shirt while doing so. I didn't realise I could say No, and so wore their shirt, khakis and tennis shoes instead of the suit I had brought.

I felt far less professional, and many visitors clearly assumed that I was an employee, rather than an outside expert.

Next time, I'll tell the client that there are certain minimal dress standards that I need to meet, in both of our interests.

-- Bernard Zick

  • I ALWAYS wear a sport coat which I can easily take off.
  • I try to dress one notch above where I feel they will be.
  • If they are in Dockers, I am in wool slacks. If they are in shorts, I am in Dockers.
  • I wear top-of-the-line clothes.
  • My goal: if the CEO of the firm were to drop in to say hello to the team, what would she or he be wearing?

-- Rita Risser

When working in high-tech corporations, I dress above what most people in my programs are wearing, -- i.e., I wear khaki pants, good flats, and a blazer or sports coat, whereas they are usually wearing jeans. The male speakers in my organization wear polo shirts with a sports coat and khakis.

-- Ann Bloch

The speaker should be dressed one step, but only one step, better than the audience. An accountant in a 3-pc suit, explaining a reduced pension plan, alienated factory workers. I once wore a suit to speak to employees on retreat -- too formal. However, a male speaker in Hawaii correctly wore a pastel jacket and flowered tie instead of pinstripes. With his audience in elegant golf clothes, he reflected the casual atmosphere but added the formality of being the speaker.

-- Susan Race

I've always heard and believed that as the speaker, you must be the epitome of the professional. Business casual to me always pertains to the participants, not the speaker. I think a blazer and slacks without tie is as casual as a speaker can get and still maintain his integrity. As a woman, I always wear a skirt, dress, or suit when speaking. The audience will appreciate it and you will keep their attention more than if you're too relaxed.

If you're dressed just like them, it may pose a question of your level of expertise and affect how responsive they are to your message. This is my own opinion based on what I've read in the Dress for Success books by John Molloy and other "experts." Since a speaker would rarely remove his/her jacket during a presentation, short-sleeved shirts become a moot point; no one will ever know.

-- Peggy Morrow

When they tell me business casual, I wear a nice pantsuit and flats. I like to dress one level higher than my audience. Some of my audiences have been in shorts. When that happens I wear pants and a long-sleeved blouse. I will sometimes start out with a jacket to give me more authority if I think I need it. I can always take it off during the presentation. I wear brighter colors when it is more casual.

-- T. Scott Gross

I always ask the client to define their terms for dress: biz casual isn't the same everywhere. Personally I think it is offensive to dress much over the audience and it often puts a barrier up that you have to overcome. I once spoke to Jazzercise and was told biz casual. I asked how the audience would dress and got a killer applause when I walked onto the stage in running shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt.

-- Linda Brakeall

Call me anal but I strongly feel (get out the soap-box) that American businesspeople -- at all levels -- are looking dangerously sloppy at work. I say "dangerously" because the folks we work with abroad don't take us seriously.

I, personally, have a hard time taking a customer service person seriously who appears to be dressed for a picnic, or mowing the lawn. (LOVE the tatoos that show!)

Sooooo, my business-casual for speaking has become either a softer looking pant-suit with a soft sweater under it or slacks with a jacket.

The jacket might come off, but when I appear it is ON.

-- Gloria Starr

Business Casual: "Companies rethink casual clothes. Dressing down brings slacking off, some CEO's say" June 2000, front page of USA Today.

As an Impression Management and Image Coach since 1983, I believe that business casual has played havoc with men and women at all levels within most companies around the world. To be perceived as a professional and showcase yourself at your best:

Business Casual for men includes the following looks:

  • Sports jacket and contrasting trousers with long-sleeved dress shirt, dress loafer and socks
  • Dress trousers with belt and expensive-looking golf-type shirt with collar, dress loafer and socks
  • Dress trousers with belt, colored shirt and tie, acceptable with or without jacket
  • Dress trousers, belt, quality sweater with or without sports jacket
  • Casual pants with belt and complementary golf-type shirt with collar or short-sleeved dress shirt, with or without tie
  • No deck shoes, no sneakers, no baseball caps (forward or backwards)

Business Casual for women includes the following looks:

  • Jacket, contrasting skirt and blouse
  • Day dress with long or short sleeves
  • Day dress with blouse and jacket
  • Dress trousers with belt and tailored blouse worn with jacket
  • No bare legs, no bare arms dangling bracelets or earrings

As in all things the pendulum swings to both extremes and then back to the middle. Most of us like to be treated well and we should always look deserving of good customer service. Perception is reality.

-- Susan Fruit

For MEN:

Definitely DO NOT wear short-sleeved shirts as a speaker, even if others in the audience will be wearing them. Instead, wear a long-sleeved shirt in a good combed cotton fabric in either a solid royal blue (not navy) or forest green color paired with khaki or tan well-cut pants. Solid colors are very important. They visually communicate a message much more effectively than stripes or prints. It's also important to wear a sporty designer belt.

If you choose to wear a tie, opt for a solid yellow-based red (tomato red as opposed to a fire engine red) or a deep gold color tie (with the royal blue or forest green shirt). Solid colors are again very important. The reason is this royal blue psychologically signals to your audience that you are an expert in your field, while the forest green helps your audience pay close attention to you and your words. Both are VERY effective colors for men to wear on the platform for business casual.

-- Stephen Hunt

What to wear and NOT to wear when you've been told to dress "business casual" at a speaking function?

Wear clothes! Wear a relaxed attitude, and ALWAYS wear your smile! As the song says, "You're not fully dressed until you're wearing your smile."

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