President Zelenskyy's speech before Congress. (Image capture from CNN.)

What to wear when you’re speaking — revisited

At Toastmasters, I learned the importance of dressing appropriately when giving a speech. Usually, this means wearing a suit. I once experimented with not wearing a suit to give a contest speech, and it didn’t work out.

As a Distinguished Toastmaster, what do I think of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wearing a khaki sweatshirt, cargo pants, and boots to address a joint session of the United States Congress? It was the right choice.

President Zelenskyy just stepped off the battlefield and went straight to a plane to Washington. Do you think he had time to stop by the dry cleaners to pick up his suit? Where would you even get your suit dry cleaned in Kyiv when there isn’t enough electricity for hospitals? And if he showed up in a custom-tailored merino wool suit, you would complain about him wasting money on himself while his people are freezing and starving. A suit was the worst thing President Zelenskyy could have worn.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the president of a nation fighting for its survival. He shows us this through his clothing.

The clothes we wear are part of the message we give to our audience. Sometimes, it is a suit—especially when we want to project professional authority. Other times, it’s a casual outfit like at the Loscon panels I moderated. Some authors wore fedoras or bright vests that reflect their genres and writing style. And if you’re a wartime president, it means wearing the same fatigues as the soldiers you’re fighting with.

I have a few things to say to all the politicians and media pundits who attacked President Zelenskyy about his choice of attire. Making fun of someone’s clothes shows that once again, you are the third-grade bullies who never grew up. And if your first line of attack is his appearance, it shows you don’t have any valid arguments about anything he said. Defending a nation’s sovereignty? Protecting innocent civilians? Furthering the cause of democracy? Defending America’s interests? Stopping Russian aggression? What is your disagreement with any of these? OK, I know some of you aren’t too keen on the whole democracy and rule of law thing. Some of you are clearly carrying water for Putin (or he has plenty of kompromat on you). And there are those of you who don’t see the humanity of anyone different from you. Why don’t you just come out and say it?

As for those of us who heard the words and took them to heart, President Zelenskyy deeply moved us. Those were the words of a proud and courageous leader who cares deeply about his people. Those were the words of an effective communicator who understood his American audience, spoke our language, and addressed our concerns. Those were the words of someone who compelled us to see the humanity of others and to do whatever we can to help them. This was all conveyed through his choice of clothing.

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