How to Make Your Association Leaders Look Professional

with Diane Parente 

PART I — Meetings

While your elected leaders may be quite at home leading the annual board meeting, public speaking may not be their favorite arena.

As even the most seasoned of speakers may experience jitters before opening meetings, introducing speakers, making announcements or speaking on panels, it’s no surprise that association leaders may feel uncomfortable in these situations. Here are some ideas that can make them, and therefore you, the Association Executive, look good.

Set Up for More Intimate Feeling

Have the chairs set in a more user-friendly way, closer to the stage and chevroned so the audience is more comfortable. Certainly, make sure you have enough seats, but don’t have dozens of excess chairs. Why? People usually fill from the back forward, and it’s difficult to build intimacy when the speaker is a long way from the audience.

It’s a good idea to have music playing as people filter into the room because it sets a tone for the meeting and puts people at ease. This is especially important at a meeting where many people are first-time attendees.

Welcome Introduction

Arrange to have an “off-stage” voice introduce the president or convention chair. This allows the board member or elected officer who opens, welcomes, and is the first at the lectern to get applause. They are very dedicated and, no doubt, have worked very hard without many accolades, so the crowd appreciation is much deserved. I often introduce people who will introduce me later in the program. Even though some people say they do not need the applause, I remind them that the audience is not only applauding the “Person” but the “Position” as well.

For Larger Meetings

In my experience, larger, formal programs benefit from the presence of TelePrompTers. They allow leaders to read their presentations while looking natural. Through use of TelePrompTers, speakers can maintain eye contact with the audience without losing track of their place in their speeches.

Make Your Panels More Relaxed

When working with a panel comprised of industry leaders, use comfortable chairs and a question-and-answer type format a la Phil Donahue. Many people come alive in this type of situation, whereas they tend to stiffen up and feel pressured to read from their notes in more traditional set ups where they are standing and giving formal presentations.

Don’t Compete with Your Audio Visual

You may think you are providing atmosphere, but dimming lights for audio visual presentations may be an invitation for the audience to doze off or leave early. Research has shown that if you turn the lights down and increase the sound, people think they cannot hear. As most audio visual programs can be viewed with the lights on, I strongly suggest this option.

Make sure all slides or overheads can be seen by people in the back of the room. And never put too much information on each visual. This is one of the biggest mistakes even good non-professional speakers make time and time again. Remember the adage: less is more.


Whenever possible, rehearse. These practice sessions give everyone a chance to get familiar with the flow and timing of events. It gives you a chance to point out to those not thrilled about using a microphone just how vital it is that they do. Even a powerful voice has natural enemies in a meeting room – from voices in the next room to the whir of the air conditioner. It’s important to keep in mind that if people can’t hear clearly, it’s much easier for them to tune out.

Get the Most out of Vendors/Suppliers

Meeting planners and production companies are a great resource, as they have a lot of experience and creative ideas. More importantly, they can make your job easier.

Introducing Guest Speakers

The person who is going to introduce your guest speaker should see the introduction well before the event. Even the most intelligent people can stumble over easy to pronounce words if they are not prepared.

Check the Microphone

Make sure everyone who will be speaking is apprised of the fact that “the microphone is on.” This often asked question is distracting and can certainly take away from an exciting opening. Remember, the first 30 seconds of a program has the most impact. Make it strong! As far as presenters’ speeches are concerned, make sure they don’t feel like they must start with a joke. This is especially important if they are known as ramblers or people who just aren’t funny. If they insist using humor, make sure their jokes are in good taste and relevant to the occasion, person or theme.


Eliminate distractions wherever possible. If there’s a photographer on the premises, try to arrange for him/her to take pictures before or after the event. If you have dignitaries at the head table while someone is speaking, let them know if they are working on their own remarks it will invalidate the importance of the message being delivered. Perhaps invite them off-stage to “enjoy” the program.

Coaching in Advance Pays Dividends

Why not have a speech coach work with your industry leaders in advance? A little preparation can go a long way in instilling confidence and competence.


PART II — Image

Dressing for the occasion is critical. The appropriate dress will positively affect your leader’s comfort and image.

Because image is so essential to a successful presentation, I asked Image Consultant and Coauthor of “Mastering Your Professional Image” Diane Parente for her advice. Here’s what she had to say:

PF: How can male association leaders have more impact and power on stage when they are not used to speaking? We want them to look more confident and look at ease on stage. We know that a lot of that sense of presence comes from the way they dress. Any advice?

Parente: What they have to do first is concentrate on the selection of their suit . They should stand in front of a mirror and check the fit of the suit, how it looks on them, how the colors coordinate with what they are wearing, and proper tie selection. I suggest that they take a Polaroid so they can objectively see how they dress. In addressing groups most men wear dark colors with light shirts. I recommend that they wear less contrasting colors and wear an interesting patterned tie.

Second, he needs to consider his audience. Is the group a traditional audience or are they in an artistic, creative field? For each field, he needs to “bridge the gap.” For example there are four ways of dressing. They are:

  1. traditional
  2. elegant
  3. dramatic
  4. sporty

Each one conveys a different message. Once the message is understood, then he can parlay that to the appropriate group.

PF: What advice do you have in addressing your association of electricians if you are president of the group?

Parente: It is essential for the president to wear a dark suit with a light contrasting shirt. He needs to pick a tie that hopefully matches his eye color as well as some kind of red or yellow or other color that adds contrast. He needs to pay attention to the fit making sure the tie reaches his waist. His jacket is best closed, and his pants should breeze the top of the shoes. The shirt collar is also very important for a man. Also key is good quality fabric that lays well. When he stands, he must make sure that he is immaculately groomed.

PF: What advice do you have for women — especially if they are the first woman to be president or the convention chair of their association? They want impact and want to dress for the prestige of their position.

Parente: A dark color is always appropriate, but women can get lost on stage in black or navy. They can wear purple, red, fuschia, or teal. I suggest having a color with impact, and that the color be a carry over image from their stationery and business card. It helps to keep with the image they convey in all their marketing materials.

Also important is to show a shape with the cut of the suit. Next, be careful of hemlines. When on stage the hemline could appear too short. Make sure it is a good fit around the waist and shoulders and that there is no buckling around the chest area.

PF: If you are as short as I am, do you recommend that I wear all the same color?

Parente: Absolutely.

PF: If you were a tall woman, would you suggest wearing the same color?

Parente: No, I would break the colors up. Your friend, Jeanne Robertson who is 6’2″, could do almost anything. Tall people often break up their colors because they don’t want to intimidate other people. To look more approachable, wear colors like red or fuschia or perhaps a dark skirt at mid knee. And wear low heels. Shoes are important when you are on stage. Keep the shoes and the hemline coordinated because the emphasis should be on the face.

A tall person could wear a bright jacket with a lightly patterned shirt or blouse with two colors. A dark skirt will then cut the height down by three or four inches.

PF: If you were on a panel where you were one of six speakers, what would you do differently?

Parente: I would dress a bit more approachable. I would not wear a strong, dark color unless the other panelists dress in dark colors. If you are part of a panel for a small group or addressing a small group, I would be more approachable by wearing separates. That means a jacket and skirt and top combination. For a man I suggest a sports jacket and slacks.

PF: Any other recommendations?

Parente: I always recommend that when women wear a blouse or sweater and have to wear a little lapel mike, that they put lingerie straps inside their blouse. Also, tuck your blouse or sweater into your panty hose to eliminate extra bulk around the waist. And for tall or long waisted men, their shirts often come out from their waist. They should have their tailor put velcro strips into the waist band of the pants. Strips of 2″ or 3″ will keep their shirt neatly tucked in during the day.