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What to Wear to Your TEDx Talk

By Dr. Steven Hayward & Cesar Cervantes

So you’ve pitched, landed, written, and rehearsed your TEDx talk and now, somehow, it’s next week. There’s part of your brain that doesn’t know how this could be possible, and thinks back nostalgically to three months previous when the phrase “in three months” sounded like an almost unimaginably distant future moment. The rest of your brain, the part of it that operates the calendar, realizes that your talk is very very soon, and almost immediately after, asks the question: “What are you going to wear?”

It’s at this moment that panic sets in. Despite having paid attention to the minutiae of your talk, or maybe because your attention has been focused there, you realize that somehow you have failed to consider the question of what clothes to wear on the big day. That’s where this blog post comes in. Here are a few thoughts on the subject to help out those of you who might face this perennial and vexing question.


Comfort First

No matter what your topic, remember that your preeminent concern is to wear something that you’re comfortable in and that fits with your topic. Take the example of Sir Ken Robinson's iconic TED Talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?". Sir Ken is dressed in a simple gray suit, no tie, and a button-down shirt that is open slightly at the collar to expose an unpretentious t-shirt beneath that is a slightly different shade of gray than his suit. He looks relatable, like that professor you had in college who was ruffled in a stylish way and always had something fascinating and slightly unconventional to say. Robinson’s talk centers on education and his outfit works subtly to build credibility in that area, though not so much that it’s pretentious. He looks the part, though almost without meaning to. Go for that.


“I Like to Move it”

As the legendary hip-hop artist reminds us in that song of his that is impossible to get out of your head, movement is essential in keeping an audience engaged. You need to wear something that will allow you to move around without difficulty and sometimes with what approaches real agility. Hans Rosling gives a master class in this during his talk "The Best Stats You've Ever Seen" where he moves around continually, sometimes even leaning into the audience. His wardrobe? Baggy pants and a button down checkered shift over a kind of open pullover that looks as if he got it from Costco. Not everyone’s choice but it works for him and his talk--and doesn’t hinder his ability to jump around on the stage. 


Don’t Fade Away

Most TEDx stages have a fairly neutral backdrop, but not all of them, and there’s no set standard that organizers are instructed to follow. Add to that the fact that many TEDx events are not held in purpose-built spaces but community spaces that often come with their own color palette. It’s usually the case that the organizer will tell you what the background is going to look like, or that you’ll have a chance to see the space before the event--but if neither of these things happen, make sure you ask. If it’s going to be a bright blue background, blue might not be your first choice as a color if you don’t want to fade away. For an example of how this might work check out Rana el Kaliouby’s talk “This app knows how you feel - from the look on your face” where she’s wearing mostly black but stands out because of the wildly colorful set design used by the organizers.


Lights, Camera, Action

Remember that above all else, the day of your TEDx talk is a film shoot, a live taping that will long outlive the day itself. Sure, there’s a live audience and you have to deliver it, literally, on the spot, but what you’re really doing is creating a digital artifact that is going to outlive all of us. It’s for that reason that the same rules apply to the TED stage as do during any filming, chief among them is to avoid stripes. There are super detailed explanations of the way that stripes have been used for decades in films and television as a visual cue for characters you should not trust, but take it from us, stick to solid colors and simple patterns.


It’s You, Forever

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but even if that’s open to debate, it’s absolutely the case that whatever you’re wearing that day is what you will be wearing forever on the internet. It’s your legacy outfit, and therefore should echo or connect with the other work you’re doing, or whatever other kind of digital presence (or any other kind) that might be out there. Think Steve Jobs – not a TED speaker, but known for his signature black turtleneck and jeans – his look is forever iconic and part of his brand.

Whatever you end up choosing to go with, make sure that you get some feedback before you take the TEDx stage and also arrive on the day itself with a backup, an extra shirt just in case someone spills coffee on you, a second pair of shoes in case of second thoughts about the three and a half inch heels that felt so right the night before. Most of all, make sure your outfit reflects both you and your talk--and then get up there and do your thing! 


If you're ready to land and deliver your TEDx talk, write and develop your signature talk, or just need coaching on your upcoming presentation, schedule a brainstorming call with us here.

- Dr. Steven Hayward is our head writer, an English professor at Colorado College, national bestselling author, award-winning filmmaker, TEDx Speaker, and has a great head of hair.


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