Showing Your Portfolio

You’ve assembled the perfect creative portfolio and believe it speaks volumes about your skills and experience. Now it’s time to kick back and wait for hiring managers to call you, right? Not so fast. Even the most well-assembled book doesn’t speak for itself: You need to be prepared to effectively present your work to prospective employers. In fact, how well you communicate your skills and talents during portfolio reviews can make or break your chances of landing that next job.

“The portfolio presentation may be even more important than the actual pieces,” says Tamara Photiadis, senior vice president and director of creative services at Torre Lazur McCann, a Parsippany, NJ-based ad agency specializing in pharmaceutical clients.

According to Photiadis, candidates who effectively describe the reasoning behind their work during portfolio reviews have the best chances of landing a job with her firm.

Without a doubt, employers place enormous value on a candidate’s ability to communicate vision and strategy. In a recent survey by The Creative Group, a staffing service for creative professionals, half of advertising and marketing executives polled said strong communication skills are the single most important business trait for creatives to possess, ahead of industry-specific expertise and operational knowledge. It’s not just your work on display during a portfolio review; your ability to express yourself is in the spotlight, too.

Stack the Deck in Your Favor
Expressing yourself will be a lot easier if you fill your book with samples that have good stories behind them. But don’t include project “war stories” like the prima donna art director who fired you because he didn’t like your outfit. Instead, think about situations in which you were able to solve business problems, overcome creative challenges or otherwise generate positive results. As you consider which items to include, ask yourself the following questions about each one:
• How relevant is this piece to the prospective employer’s needs?
• What was the business objective, and how did this piece solve it?
• How were the results measured? Is there any quantifiable data I can share?
• Are there any aspects of this project that make it especially memorable or interesting?

This last question is particularly important because your portfolio presentation, in essence, involves telling stories, and you want to provide anecdotes that are as engaging as possible while placing you in the best light. For example, one creative director who worked for a business-to-business firm was charged with developing the concept and design for a major collateral piece in one weekend. The original concept had a lighthearted “survival” theme, which worked well—until Hurricane Katrina struck and the concept hit too close to home. To keep the piece on schedule, the company needed a completely new design in just days. Fortunately, the creative director was able to make it happen.

This is precisely the kind of story that makes a candidate stand out. Even if it weren’t a clear favorite, it would be wise to include the piece since it sparks conversation about the interviewee’s strengths.

Get Your Story Straight
Of course, not all stories will have such a wow factor. Even if you don’t have heroic tales to tell, you still can impress prospective employers by discussing how your work has made a difference. “I love it when candidates go into a story about what the business problem was and how their piece solved it,” Photiadis says.

Many people are hesitant to discuss their successes because it feels like bragging. To overcome this stumbling block, Ilise Benun, author of “Stop Pushing Me Around: A Workplace Guide for the Timid, Shy and Less Assertive,” suggests making a distinction between yourself and the work, and then centering the conversation only on the work.

“It’s a bit of a mind game, but start by avoiding the word ‘I,'” she explains. “Instead, start your sentences with ‘my clients’ or ‘my projects,’ and then focus on what you did and the results it generated.”

For example, you might say: “My clients wanted an entirely different look that would appeal to a younger demographic, and this web design met that objective. In fact, traffic from the target audience increased by 25% after it launched.” After that, fill in the details by describing the decisions you made that led to the outcome. Connecting the dots from your choices to the results is key, says Stefan Mumaw, creative director of The Brainyard, a Costa Mesa, CA-based advertising agency.

“When you’re trying to sell yourself as a conceptual person, you need to be able to validate your decision-making,” Mumaw explains. “I want to see how you think and that you understand the purpose of design from a business perspective.” Stories that show passion also strike a chord with employers, so consider the factors that excite you about a particular project: Was it that you were able to learn a skill, work with someone you admire or tackle a new challenge? When you talk about what inspires you, your enthusiasm naturally shines through.

Adapt Your Presentation
So, you’ve strategically selected relevant samples that invite conversation about your strengths, and you’ve thought of compelling anecdotes to describe them. While the essential groundwork is done, you need to be prepared to present your book in multiple formats.

Some hiring managers will want to hear everything you have to say, while others may be so busy talking about their needs that it’ll be hard to get a word in edgewise. Still others may simply flip through your samples and start quizzing you. This can be dispiriting if you’ve spent hours preparing to dazzle the employer with your engaging presentation, but don’t let yourself become flustered or try to move the portfolio review in an unnatural direction. Instead, go with the flow, peppering the conversation with your most relevant points whenever possible.

While you’ll typically do most of the talking when presenting your work, don’t forget the listening part. Pay careful attention to what the hiring manager says to gain insight into the organization’s “hot buttons” and how you can best address their needs.

This leads to perhaps the most essential part of your portfolio presentation: describing how your skills and talents can benefit the prospective employer. As Benun explains, “Samples and past projects are simply a jumping-off point, helping you make a smooth transition into a conversation about what the organization needs and how you may be able to help.”

Leave on a High Note
Once you’ve concluded your portfolio presentation, be sure to thank the hiring manager for her time and leave behind a work sample. A reminder of your talents can work in your favor, especially if it includes all of your contact information. Increasingly, this is becoming standard practice: More than two-thirds of advertising and marketing executives surveyed by The Creative Group said it’s important to leave a work sample behind after an interview. It’s also smart to send a thank-you note showing appreciation for the hiring manager’s time and reinforcing your key qualifications. E-mail is timely and acceptable, but a handwritten message has more impact.

If you don’t get the job but you feel like you established a good rapport with the hiring manager, consider contacting her to request her feedback on your portfolio and how well you presented it. This is especially useful if you’re just starting your career or if you’ve been out of the job market for a while. Finally, keep in mind that practice makes perfect. As you participate in more of these meetings, your delivery skills will improve—and so will your chances of landing that next position or project.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.