What to Wear on Stage

This is part of the Developer Relations series.

There’s a ton of content on the internet about what presenters should wear. Most, however, are recommendations for what businessmen should wear when pitching to “the big client.” I haven’t found much content with recommendations for technical speakers and recommendations specifically for female technical speakers. Like a lot of developer relations skills, most of what I’ve learned about speaking attire came from bad experiences and stories about other people’s bad experiences. I hope that by writing down some of my recommendations, others won’t have to make the same mistakes I’ve made.

The Microphone

All the conferences I’ve spoken at use a body-mounted mic. The most common types are lapel mics, which clip on your shirt, or over the ear mics, which may end up taped to your face. Body mics always have a battery pack that is about the size of a deck of playing cards. If you are wearing pants with usable pockets or belt loops, you can either put the battery pack in a pocket or hang it from your belt. If you aren’t wearing pants, or your pockets are not big enough, finding a place to put the battery pack is a challenge.

If you can wear a belt with your outfit that usually works. Just make sure that your belt is strong enough to hold the weight. Wider belts over dresses can help conceal the battery if you don’t want it visible. Some skirts and kilts are sturdy enough that you can hook the battery over the waistband. Just be careful that you don’t drop the battery if you need to use the restroom. Depending on the positioning, pockets on dresses may or may not work. Even if they do work, the cord from the battery will likely be visible. You can fix this by cutting a small hole in the inside of the pocket. Then you can thread the cord up inside your dress and out the top. My friends who work in theatre also suggest clipping the battery onto the band of your bra, either under the arm or in back, or buying a microphone band online.

The other challenge wireless microphones present for speakers is getting wired up in the 5 minutes between talks. Having some idea how you want to handle things is helpful for making this process go quickly. I don’t like wearing over the ear mics with my glasses, so I take them off before I get mic’d up. If I’m wearing an outfit that will be a challenge to run the cord under, I’ll ask the A/V person to step into a private area while we figure things out or I’ll ask to take the mic to the restroom so I can run the cord myself. I’ve done enough speaking that having someone touching me to adjust wires and microphones doesn’t bother me anymore. But you don’t have to be this laissez-faire about it. Ask for what you need to feel comfortable, and any good A/V team will take care of it.

Also, please remove your conference badge before you put on the microphone. I’ve sat through a few talks where the presenter’s badge banged against the microphone over and over. If you are on stage, the conference program (and your slides) will tell attendees who you are. Your badge isn’t necessary.

The Stage

Tech conferences use a variety of venues. Sometimes they use professional theatres. Theatres usually have great acoustics. They also usually have stages with hard surfaces that have a void underneath. Footsteps on this type of stage are loud, and certain types of footwear make it worse. Women’s fashion boots make quite the racket. Other shoes with a hard sole are often too loud as well. Stick to shoes with a soft or rubber sole (even on the heel), practice walking very softly, or plan to not move around during your talk.

Events in conference centers or hotels will either have a temporary stage or will have you presenting from the floor. Temporary stages often have carpet to muffle footsteps so where what feels good. If you are speaking from the floor, you don’t have to worry as much about noise and may want to wear heels to be more visible.

Another thing to take into account is where the stage positions you with respect to viewers. My sixth-grade band teacher pointed out that the audience’s eyes are often at your knee level once you are standing on stage. He recommended we wear long skirts since many instruments can’t be played with your knees held together. I usually choose fuller skirts or pants where I speak for this reason. Also, think about your socks and shoes. In most business contexts socks and shoes are hard to see, but once you stand on stage, they become more visible, especially to the folks in the front few rows.

Branding and Appearance

There are a lot of different thoughts and ideas about what you should wear on stage. Many folks I know dress casually for tech speaking gigs. Many speaking coaches recommend that you blend in with the audience so your content, not your outfit, takes center stage. I’ve also heard from folks, both men and women, that they dress informally so that folks assume they are technical and not in sales. I wish jeans + t-shirt + converse wasn’t how our industry indicated “technical”. It is changing but how you dress is still seen as a signal. If dressing as the tech industry expects works for you, there’s nothing wrong with it.

I also know several speakers who dress up for their talks. There’s nothing wrong with wearing a great suit, a dress, a sports coat, or a blazer if that is what works for you. There’s a push right now for women in tech to not be ashamed if we want to wear heels, makeup, or dresses and give a technical talk. I support this if that’s what works for you. I’ve worn a skirt on stage a number of times, and it was fine. No one told me they thought I was less technical because of how I was dressed.

The other component of appearance is branding. I have a very specific and visible brand: I wear pink shirts, usually with dinosaurs on them, on stage. My branding started about seven years ago when my boyfriend told me I was easy to find at a tech conference when I wore a magenta shirt. So I started wearing pink so that people could find me to ask questions after my talk. I don’t strictly wear pink anymore. If it is appropriate for the event, I’ll wear something Google branded or a non-pink dinosaur shirt with a pink blazer. But at events where I’m not well known, I default to pink.

Your brand doesn’t have to be related to what you wear. It doesn’t have to be as specific as mine either. Your brand may be that you always talk about hard hitting technical topics. Maybe your brand is awful puns or amusing demos. It is helpful to have something consistent about how you present yourself. It makes it easier to draw an audience if folks can say “oh yeah, I saw a talk by __ at an event last year and it was awesome.” And you get more questions and compliments about your talk if you are easy to find after you speak.

Comfort

Lastly, make sure that you are reasonably comfortable in your speaking outfit. I’ve given dozens of talks, and I still get nervous before I speak. An uncomfortable outfit just makes my nerves worse. I’m also a fidgeter, and uncomfortable clothes just make the fidgeting worse. You probably have some idea what does and doesn’t work for you. I avoid fingertip length hems and bell sleeves when I’m speaking since both are prime for fidgeting.

Do what you need to do so that you are comfortable on stage. After all, Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t wear shoes on stage and it hasn’t held him back. The world is willing to accept some eccentricities from the folks who teach them awesome stuff. And if you’ve been selected to speak you have awesome stuff to share.