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A critical eye on communication, by Tom Poldre

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Another wardrobe malfunction?

U.S. President Obama took considerable heat last week. Not over racial unrest in the Midwest, or lack of response in the face of Russian tampering in the Ukraine, or the unchecked spread of Islamist militants.

No. Horror of horrors, he gave a press conference in a TAN SUIT! A casual, summery TAN suit!

Derision was fast and furious, especially in the twittersphere:

“Not only is Obama wearing a tan suit, it seems way too big for him too. It looks like he’s about to be bar mitzvahed in Miami”.

Here’s my personal favourite:

“The Audacity of Taupe”.

(Check out the full range of commentary here:

The merciless snark-asm of course stems from our collective expectation of what constitutes presidential attire: the somber power colours of navy blue and dark grey. The conservative cut, lapels not too narrow or too wide – all meant to reassure an anxious public and NOT detract from the message.

As a televisual society, we have become accustomed to, even comfortable with, the dark power suit as the dress of authority and gravitas. The design of our modern business suit apparently evolved from the military uniform and its projection of authority, hence those power shades are the military colours of navy blue, grey and perhaps, just perhaps, even a very dark olive green.

Serious men, when working, are expected to wear the dark-coloured “power” suits. Audience members, as receptors of messages and images, have subconscious expectations of appearance adherence from politicians, bankers, lawyers, TV newscasters and funeral directors.

Similarly, doctors can wear white lab coats, athletes can wear ball caps and jerseys, and rock stars can wear anything they want. Deviate from the norm and the brain goes “huh?”, spending more capacity processing the disconnect than absorbing the message, as per the tweet from Daily Beast reporter Olivia Nuzzi:

“Obama just announced we are going to war with Canada and none of you noticed because you were distracted by his outfit.”

(Women fortunately have a bit more latitude: Margaret Thatcher was renowned for being able to successfully wear power jacket-and-skirt ensembles in bright scarlet, even lime green — she, of course, needed to stand out in a sea of grey and blue suits).

What are at work here are some basic communications fundamentals that I always stress:
1) Most communication is non-verbal.
2) First impressions matter, and are solidified within about ten seconds.
3) There must be congruence between the message and the messenger.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the tech sector led to a relaxation of corporate dress code – still, however, Wall Street didn’t quite know how to handle Zuckerberg and his hoodie. We’ll see what the next generations bring to the conventional wisdom, but in the meantime my advice remains the same: if you’re in doubt what to wear to a presentation, pitch, meeting or conference, go conservative.

Unless, of course, you’re the president of the United States of America.