I have long believed in the power of a talisman, which is an object, typically a ring or stone, thought to have magical powers and to bring good luck. It’s not the magic I ascribe to, rather it’s the capacity of a symbol to provide comfort because of its personal meaning and significance to the owner.
When I was preparing for the most important day in my life as a lawyer, arguing before the highest court in my state, I did all of the usual stuff – rehearsing like a maniac, conducting mock arguments before my peers, and practicing how I would handle questions.
And, I thought about how I wanted to look while doing it.
A big part of preparing for an important event, speech, performance or interview is choosing your clothes. My coaching clients don’t always see the relevance but, just like any actor knows, clothing plays a supporting role and allows you to fully inhabit your power, poise and professionalism. In addition to the work required, I ask my clients “what are you going to wear?”
A first impression is made in 7-30 seconds and based largely on nonverbal communication – how you look, walk, facial expressions and what you’re wearing. So, it’s important on the outside as well as on the inside, where your choice of clothing will help remind you to stand up straight and step into your power.
One of the most meaningful items I chose to wear for my big day was a necklace that my sister-in-law Kathy Harris made. Kathy passed away prematurely in 2011 after battling Parkinson’s disease for roughly half her life. She represented strength, fortitude and joyfulness in life, whatever your struggles. When she could, she made art. When she couldn’t, she found other ways to have purpose. My Supreme Court argument was in 2014, and I wanted a piece of Kathy with me, as a source of inspiration and comfort. She was a badass and I thought I’d channel that.
This all came flooding back when I watched Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman deliver her magnificent poem at the inauguration of Joe Biden. Before Gorman even spoke the first word, her presence was commanding and the clothes she chose helped create that impression. Everything about her appearance and performance had been considered and calibrated for her self-confidence. As she confided in Robin Roberts, Gorman felt “daunted and “scared” when she contemplated delivering an inaugural poem. She wasn’t sure she could do it justice.
Reflecting on Gorman’s confidence to step up in the face of fear, Roberts said “you had something comforting you on your hand, a ring that was given to you by Oprah.”
Gorman confirmed that Oprah Winfrey, having purchased Poet Laureate Maya Angelou’s coat and gloves for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, wanted to continue the tradition and buy something for her. Gorman’s ring has a caged bird inside of it which Gorman said symbolized her idol, and helped her “feel like I had Maya close.” Winfrey’s generosity, she said, resulted in being “prepared emotionally and fashionably for the moment.” That is how you do it – by finding something meaningful.
Mark Twain famously wrote that clothes make the man, explaining his point: “There is no power without clothes. It is the power that governs the human race. Strip its chiefs to the skin, and no State could be governed; naked officials could exercise no authority; they would look (and be) like everybody else — commonplace, inconsequential. A policeman in plain clothes is one man; in his uniform he is ten.”
Words to live by. If you want to be consequential and powerful, choose the wardrobe that will let the world know. Whether it’s your first day on a new job or delivering a keynote address, let your clothes announce who you are before you say a word. Like Amanda Gorman.