We’re always asked at some point during our media training courses about what to wear when doing a TV interview. How you look during television interviews or presentations – and in particular the colours that you wear – has a major impact on the impression that your audience takes away. You might be speaking eloquently in a persuasive and engaging way and making some very important points but if your clothing is distracting then you might as well be reading a train timetable.
We often quote the work of a Princeton psychologist called Alexander Todorov in our media coaching sessions. Todorov wanted to know to what extent people judge someone’s competence to do their job based simply on their appearance rather than any other more substantial information. So he conducted an experiment in which he showed thousands of people pairs of portraits and asked those people to rate the competence of the people in these pictures. What the test subjects didn’t know was that those pictured were candidates for the US Congress and Senate.
When Professor Todorov correlated the reaction of the test subjects who had seen pictures of the candidates for a second or less with the actual election results, he discovered that in between 66 per cent and 73 per cent of cases the judgement of test subjects correlated with the final election results. So, you can go through the whole election process or you can show voters your picture for a second (or less in some cases) and nearly three quarters of the time the results are the same.
A major part of this visual impact relates to the colours that you wear on television or when you’re presenting to an audience. During our media training courses and afterwards, when we’re supporting clients who are appearing on TV or delivering their presentations, we help them to think about the colours that might be right for them.
What colours should you wear on television?
Let’s start with two colours that you really shouldn’t wear. Black and white don’t work well on television. A crisp white shirt might be good for a job interview and it’s OK for most presentations but on TV it glares and casts the rest of you in shadow so avoid white during a TV interview. Cream is a good substitute for white.
Black might be elegant and flattering in normal life but on television it often drains the life out of you. It can often look gloomy and even sinister. We had to advise a very accomplished spokeswoman not to wear a black suit and T-shirt when delivering a difficult message about two deaths that had taken place on her watch. “Oh, my god,” she said after we showed her the footage during a practice session. “I look like an undertaker.” She was right. Grey or navy blue work better than black.
Navy blue is actually a very good colour to wear on TV. It’s seen as safe and understated. It’s also regarded as the colour of trust – that’s why the police and airline cabin crew often wear it. (Or does the causation work the other way? Either way, navy blue is a safe bet).
What about wearing red during a TV interview?
Red has a particular significance for human beings. Women who wear red often appear more attractive to men, according to research by the University of Rochester, NY.
However, as the colour of blood, red stimulates distinct reactions in the brain. It also signifies emergencies, of course. It’s no coincidence that the signal to stop in traffic lights is red. If you’re slow on the uptake when green or amber is showing you might get someone beeping you from behind. Do this with red and you could get killed. However, red is also associated with anger and aggression. Some psychologists have even questioned whether London buses should be this colour. It’s certainly a strong hue.
We recently worked with a young woman from a big financial services company who was launching a new product range. We discussed her choice of a red jacket and shirt for her TV interviews.
“Look,” she said. “The financial services industry is full of men in grey suits and I want to stand out from them.” So she wore red – and she did indeed create a strong impression.
The fact that we helped her to speak normal, human language rather than financial services jargon and to use stories and examples also helped to ensure that her TV interviews were powerful, memorable and well received – as they still are, years after we trained her.
Should I wear a grey suit on TV?
So what about grey? Actually, there’s nothing wrong with wearing grey during a TV interview and we often recommend it during our media training courses. Again, it’s the colour of trust and respectability. However, we would suggest that both men and women add a warmer colour to balance the dullness. Also be wary of the heavy chalk stripes or busy herringbone patterns that grey suits and jackets sometimes feature.
Pale blue is a lovely, engaging colour that works well on TV, especially if you want to soften your look. Green can do the same but it can sometimes have the unwelcome effect of making the wearer look pale and washed out. Generally, pastel shades are good on TV because they’re flattering to most people’s skin and hair tones and they’re not over powering.
A pastel coloured shirt matched with a tie that has a strong block colour or a simple pattern (nothing busy and complex, please) is a good look for men. It’s simple, confident and won’t distract viewers from their performance.
Purple is an interesting colour. On the one hand it’s regarded as luxurious and even slightly theatrical but according to research among audiences for particular brands it’s also associated with “authority, sophistication and power.” It was after all the colour used by Roman emperors and magistrates and Peter Mandelson shrewdly chose it an as an alternative to Labour’s traditional red when he was reinventing the party and creating New Labour.
With flying colours – what to wear on TV
A woman in a purple jacket or dress or a man wearing a purple tie can look elegant and adopt a high status persona. In our media training courses we work with a lot of lawyers, accountants, retail consultants and other professionals whose firms have asked us to train them so that they can act as commentators on their sector. Purple is a good colour for them.
The colour of the clothing that you were on television or during a presentation for that matter can have a profound effect on the impression that your audience takes away. Obviously, you’ll be focussing on your key messages during your preparation but, as we point out in our media training sessions, getting the colour of your clothing right is a small detail that can make a big difference.