Presentation Skills: To Be or Not To Be… Informal
November 2, 2016 by Bill Rosenthal

I am old enough to remember when the world was a lot more formal. You would put on a suit to go to work. If you were a man, you wore a necktie. But can you blame people for not wanting to dress that way for work anymore? After all, one of the world’s most successful business professionals goes to work in T-shirts. There is probably a lot more influencing business dress than a widespread desire to imitate Mark Zuckerberg, but it seems clear that the workplace is a lot less formal now than it was when I first got in it. These days, in some industries, business meetings sometimes look like camping trips or slumber parties.

The loss of formality has not just affected clothing. Floor plans, job titles, team organization, meeting protocols, and conversation all tend toward the casual. And why not? Many people do their best work when their surroundings feel more relaxed, and there are many business processes that seem to benefit from informality.

But there are some business processes that don’t benefit from informality, and I think giving presentations is one of those. I don’t think it increases your persuasiveness if you take off your jacket, drape yourself over the lectern, and make your remarks in a conversational tone of voice. I believe informality makes you less persuasive.

People sometimes tell us that the behaviors we teach in Executive Presentation Skills® or EPS Anywhere™ seem formal. I suppose they are. We teach upright posture, steady eye contact, and confident voice projection. We also suggest you wear a suit when you’re presenting, even if those in the audience will be dressed casually. We know from both research and experience that these behaviors support presentation success. 

But presentation skills go beyond wearing a suit and standing up straight. A presentation is an occasion. Do what you can to make it one. That doesn’t mean you need to be stuffy or inflexible. It just means you should take note of your surroundings and try to arrange them to formally showcase what you’re communicating.

Make sure you stand up. Even if you’re making a presentation to a small group, and you’re expected to be seated at a table with your audience, find an excuse to stand up. Go to a flip chart or white board. A standing presentation is more formal, but it has more energy and excitement, and it raises your stature in the eyes of the audience. When you engage in the formality of standing up, you make the presentation an event. Your audience will perceive you as being more authoritative, and they will remember the event better afterward. 

There are lots of times that informality enhances processes, but presentations aren’t usually among those times. It’s OK to be relaxed. If you’re Mark Zuckerberg, it’s OK to show up in a gray T-shirt. But if you’re not Mark Zuckerberg, consider wearing a suit. Address people in the audience by name if that’s the local convention. But do it standing and with a projected voice. You’ll be surprised what a small amount of formality can add to your presentation skills.