Writers, designers, artists and photographers face the constant dilemma of showing potential employers or clients exactly what kind of genius they’re capable of. The portfolio is an integral part of your effort to market yourself to those who can benefit from your services. Over the years, my portfolio has morphed as often as my job titles, and I clearly recall the angst of having to show what I could do despite having practically no working experience. Nowadays, my angst tends more towards answering the “what should I include,” and “how far back I should I go” questions. So, whether you’re new to field, or a veteran looking for new opportunities, you’re probably considering how to build or rebuild a portfolio that shines a welcome spotlight.
I wish Deb Ray’s piece on Developing an Annotated Portfolio had been available to me when I first moved from marketing communications into technical writing. It’s a great way to start thinking about how to present the work you’ve done, particularly if the work might be viewed as something other than strictly technical writing. The landscape of technical communications has changed in every way imaginable, including how we interview for and work at our jobs. Your need for a physical portfolio may be infrequent in these days of telephone interviews and telecommute jobs, but at the very least, you need a digital collection of your work to make available to those you are talking with. Think of producing your portfolio as a technical communications project and build something that shows not only what you’ve done in the past, but showcases your ability to build something.
What is the Objective of Your Portfolio?
If you are a freelancer or independent consultant, you want to acquire new clients. If you are a recent graduate, you want to show what you are capable of and how you can contribute at the entry level. If you’re looking for a new full-time or contract engagement, you want to show that you have the skills for a particular role and the talent and ability to produce. In the same way your resume focuses on your specific goals and how they complement a potential employer’s needs, your portfolio should support and tie to the same goals. And yes, just like those of us who have multiple resumes, you should consider multiple versions of your portfolio, or at least multiple ways to view it, depending on the type of position you go after.
How Should You Organize Your Work?
This question is best answered after you’ve determined your objective. Consider functional competencies, skills and tools, industry specialties, and chronological history in laying out the structure of your portfolio. One of the great things about digital presentation is that you can organize your work according to the structure that works best for you, but set up access to the content in different ways (such as different landing pages on your website) depending on your purpose and the people to whom you are planning to present. You should include at a minimum the following components:
- Table of Contents: provides the reviewer with an overview of the materials included so they can get a sense of the size and scope
- Summaries: emphasize the problem and the solution you developed with summaries of the projects that your samples represent. Explain your role in the project and any particulars that highlight your contributions.
- Samples: provide links to the materials, and consider including the file type and size to give fair warning to the reviewer.
- References & Feedback: describe the impact of your work (provide numbers if possible—such as reducing support calls by X percent, or increasing click through rates, etc.), and excerpt references from your supervisors, colleagues or clients that highlight your contributions.
- Customized pages and samples: If you have a large or diverse portfolio, think about how you would like to categorize your samples and create a summary page for each category. For example, I group my work by communications types: user support, process analysis, project documentation, marketing communications, usability, etc.
What Skills and Achievements Do You Want to Highlight?
While this would appear to be a no brainer, take some time to think about the specific skills you want to highlight, and choose portfolio pieces that accomplish the task. If you have been involved in a lot of software development, but are planning to move into process, policy and procedure work, multiple samples of online help or design documents are probably overkill, and could send the wrong message. Start with the list of competencies or qualifications at the top of your resume to determine the categories of samples you want to include. You may choose to include a sample of a completely different area than what you are shooting for now to show the breadth of your skills, but providing a whole section devoted to writing FAQs when you want to do content strategy work would be of questionable value.
How Much Should You Include?
Here is one that has been a challenge for me. I’ve worked in a number of industries, doing quite a variety of work over the years, and I’ve been at this for quite a while. So how many samples of those really awesome help systems I’ve produced should I really include? If you’re a long time TechWhirler, you know the answer is “it depends”— on the type of position you’re seeking, the industry you’re trying to get into, your level of experience, and a lot more. You may want to put together a portfolio matrix that lists the areas you want to highlight (skills and competencies, strategic and project planning ability, industry specialties, etc.) in columns, and list your best samples in rows, marking the cells where the area and the sample converge.
What Makes Your Work Unique and Relevant?
I look at answering this question like I do the dreaded “Why should I hire you?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?” questions we’ve all had in interviews at some point or another. We hate the appearance of canned responses, but we really need to have an answer to it. The answers you give should be the same one you reflect in your resume and in your portfolio.
How Will You Produce Your Portfolio?
Once you’ve figured out the what, why, when and how many of your portfolio content, it is time to determine how you will produce it—how will the people you want to see your samples gain access to them? It’s fairly obvious that you should consider at least a couple of different methods, but you also need to be sure that your samples are secured from those you don’t want to have access.
Just like dressing in a suit for an in-person interview, you should carry an actual physical portfolio bound in the best materials you can afford. My first portfolio was a three-ring binder, but I moved up to a leather-bound with acetate filler sheets as soon as I could afford it.
Now this presumes you still need to carry a physical portfolio with actual pages someone can flip through. Like many of you, my interviews over the last couple of years have been on the phone, and they’ve been for positions where I would be planning and producing primarily electronic content. Today you have quite a number of options for presenting your work digitally:
- Jump Drive/CD: Jump or flash drives work better than a briefcase, and you don’t need to worry about extra bag charges at the airport. Organize your work in folders, and include a start page with table of contents and project summaries where it can be accessed quickly. If you’d rather go slightly less expensive route, burn CDs with a custom label. Both of these are “leave behind” alternatives for in-person interviews, but do remember to select samples that you can safely leave with the interviewers. Take a look at Bruce Byfield’s classic TechWhirl article on “Taking Your Show on the Road” for a great primer on creating a CD portfolio.
- Tablet PC Presentations: The tablet revolution allows you to bring the portfolio with you without the need of a laptop. Apple’s iPad version of Keynote allows for full presentations at your fingertips, or it can be used to reference website, PDF or other online document. In addition to having a ready-made digital presentation, employers are normally impressed by the use of the latest technology in such a thoughtful way.
- Email file attachments: The art of the thank you letter should have gone digital years ago. I write thank you notes to those I interview with, and use the opportunity to highlight key points and attach relevant samples. If you’re providing attachments, consider the size of the files, format and the confidentiality of the materials in addition to appropriateness for the situation.
- Professional website: particularly useful for freelancers and independent consultants, building out a professional website allows you to present your services, pricing, and the all important samples and references. If design is not your strong suit, you can purchase templates, or use default designs for WordPress or Blog.com (among others). Or, consider trading your writing services with a designer and you both end up with well written and well-laid out sites that showcase your work.
- Online portfolio: There’s a niche for everything, and on-line portfolio services are no different. Hundreds of portfolio hosting sites exist for photographers, illustrators and graphic designers. While not as common, writing portfolio sites do exist, and present a viable alternative if you choose not to focus on building and maintaining a website of your own.
- Online file sharing: One of my favorite innovations resulting from cloud computing are online file sharing services. These services provide convenient and secure locations for portfolio materials, as well as, pretty much anything else you want to share. We use Dropbox to manage a lot of TechWhirl operations, and we also do a lot of work with Google Docs. Search on “online file sharing” and test drive one of the many options that come up.
- Social media channels: Recruiters use social media to check up on candidates, you should consider using them as well. There’s no reason your Facebook page can’t be as professional as your LinkedIn profile, and they’re ideal for posting links to recent content. In addition, you can create a profile presentation on LinkedIn that provides a creative way to display your samples, and tell your story.
An awful lot of websites, webinars and podcasts these days cover “personal branding.” Marketing yourself takes thought and strategic preparation. It is just like marketing a product or service. Consider some new ways to make your online portfolio stand out and give your potential employer/client some great food for thought.
- Thumbnail Gallery: A “slide show” gallery doesn’t have to be the exclusive province of graphic artists and top ten news sites. Use a gallery on your site or online portfolio to focus on different functional competencies, industries, or to simply highlight your best pieces. You can find java script samples, flash templates and other code on many web design resource sites.
- Before and After examples: Create a screen shot with hotspot links, or set up text links to PDFs that show the state of the material before you worked your magic, and the results of your magic. This could be particularly useful if you want to highlight editing skills, as well as layout and design ability.
- Pop up a collection of materials: if you’re fairly web savvy, you may want to create a visual that represents all the pieces in a set of materials. Hot spot the visual and pop up the project summaries or links to the actual pieces. I find this really helpful in emphasizing the scope of a project, and my ability to handle a wide range of materials.
Take the time to plan how your portfolio is organized, who should be able to access it, and how often you need to update it. Like preparing a good resume, and rehearsing interview skills, portfolio development is a key part of your career strategy. If you have some effective strategies for creating and maintaining a digital portfolio, please consider sharing them with us by posting a comment.
Editor’s note: One of the big challenges for technical communicators’ portfolios is getting permission to use materials created, especially when you’re working under NDAs. Look for an article in July on the issues involved and ways you can market yourself without compromising confidentiality.