Presenting your design portfolio in-person

Using public speaking techniques to amplify your message and engage your audience

Dan Shilov

Aug 9 · 8 min read

In the last article, Crafting a compelling story for your on-site design portfolio presentation, we covered project selection, presentation outlines and how to wrap it all up in engaging story by using frameworks such as the Hero’s Journey. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, take a look.

Now for the final part — presenting in-person. Your speech will be part written script, part improv. Here we’ll cover presentation basics from where to sit, to how to end on a high note. One more thing—these days companies are shifting in-person portfolios to online conference calls. While the context is different, many of the same tips apply.

Think about the last time you went out to a restaurant. What did you order? Where did you eat? If it was a high end restaurant — the light (or the lack thereof), the ambiance, the music, and the way your dish was presented all played into a delectable experience at first bite.

A good presentation is nourishing and nutritious. Photo by Cayla1

Now think of the time you got a similar dish for takeout. Most likely it came in cheap, disposable packaging. The food might have come in different packets that you had to mix yourself. Same basic ingredients. Completely different experience.

The way you frame your presentation is the difference between fast food and fine dining.

Aside from getting the basics covered below, remember, this is your time to shine not shy away. Carry a leadership mindset with an executive presence to your onsite interview. The goal is to tell your story, show the work, and connect with your audience.

Strong content, presented in a good light leads to higher audience engagement

Practicing ahead of time by yourself or with your friends will make a big difference. If you really want to get into it, I recommend joining a local public speaking group or taking an improv class. Both will give you structure and frameworks for scripted or spontaneous scenarios.

Building rapport while setting up

Hopefully before you start your presentation you’ll have time to set up your laptop and project on screen. But if you walk into a room full of expecting looks, fear not, now’s a the time to say hello and ask questions about how to get your laptop to project with whatever set up they have. This usually takes a while, so get ready to troubleshoot.

Watch out for those notifications

Hey bae what you up to tonight? Whoops, you forgot to disable your notifications. Make sure the do not disturb mode is on. In fact I sometimes go so far as creating a new user account with only my presentation and backup portfolio work on it. No distractions, no messages. If it’s an emergency, it can wait until the end of the interview.

Finding your podium

Since table, chair and monitor configurations vary, a good rule of thumb is to position yourself where you can see your portfolio and your interviewers. This helps you,

  1. See what you’re presenting so you can point out specific things, and
  2. Connect with your audience while observing the room

Ideally you’re sitting side by side or slightly behind the interviewers to give the impression that you’re leading the group through a journey together.

Take your interviewers on a journey. Photo by Christina Morillo

At times you may also have to present in-person and on a remote video chat. In that case it’ll help to turn on your laptop’s camera to put yourself on equal footing and build rapport with the folks who are offsite.

Kicking off the presentation strong

Now that you have all the technical hurdles behind you, it’s time to dive in. One way to kick off is to let the people in the room introduce themselves first. This allows for a nice segue into your own intro via the presentation deck.

Your intro is your unique frame of your identity as a designer. Use this opportunity to weave a story about your education, background, interests, and your unique perspective ending on why you’re excited to be interviewing with the company today.

As an interviewer evaluating a candidate — this intro is critical. You want to confidently communicate your story to send a clear signal to interviewers that you’re deliberate and intentional in your career path.

Don’t shy away from revealing relevant hobbies, this is an opportunity for you to come across as a whole person, not just as a designer who consumes coffee and produces pixels. As an interviewer I want to know what makes you tick, your strong areas and what aspects of design excite you the most.

As I mentioned if you’re really interested in getting better at presenting, I recommend taking a public speaking workshop. Many years ago I’ve signed up with Toastmasters, a public speaking club that would meet on a weekly basis. The basic course alone was inexpensive and provided a good step by step foundation to practice various speech techniques in a safe space.

Here’s a couple of tips that could prove useful in your presentation,

Involve your audience

As you’re presenting your work, be sure to talk to your audience not your screen. This sounds obvious but I’ll guarantee that you might get nervous, you might forget, and without consciously paying attention — you just might spend most of your time talking at your screen instead of connecting with your listeners.

One way to combat this is to use notes. A simple cue can help you remember your message so you can focus on the audience instead of the screen.

I would also recommend you go a step above and engage your interviewers. An easy way to do this is by asking questions or doing a poll. This can be especially memorable if you have an insight to present that flies in the face of what your interviewers might expect. Instead of saying what it is, you can let your audience guess first and then you can reveal who’s right and why that insight was important.

Strike a comfortable pace

As you get into the rhythm of the presentation you want to keep a good rhythm going. Sometimes nerves will get the better of you might speak too fast trying to cover a lot of ground. Alternatively you might get bogged down in the details slowly explaining the details.

Sometimes you’ll have to accelerate or slow down to make sure your interviewers are with you. Be mindful of how much time you have though. Most presentations have an automatic timer and having practiced before you should be aware of when to check yourself.

Usually good moments are at the end of your intro (first 10 minutes), your first case study (middle of the presentation), and your last or second case study (with 10 minutes to spare at the end for questions). Time checks help you keep pace and be deliberate in presenting or skipping content if you do end up running short on time.

Project your voice and use vocal variety

Although you won’t be speaking on stage, you still want to project your voice and speak clearly. You can also use vocal variety by altering your tone or volume to build interest when appropriate.

To try this out, I recommend recording your speech. Yeah I know, it sounds weird to hear yourself talk at first but it’s a good baseline for how people actually hear you (as opposed to how you think they do). You might even find yourself a bit bored and disinterested when you play back the recording — a good sign to cut your speech and clarify your message.

Pause for questions throughout

Great speakers use silence to their advantage. When you get to the end of the project it’s a good time to pause and ask for questions. Since you’ve been monitoring and reading the room, you’ll also know when to deliberately slow down to give enough time for your listeners to process and follow-up with critical questions.

Pause to address your audience questions throughout the presentation. Photo by Eunice Lituañas

By default people won’t be in rapt attention of your presentation and if they have a burning question they might even actively block new info from coming in. That’s why building in silence and long (at times seemingly awkward) pauses is helpful. Ultimately you’ll have to practice your facilitation skills here — how much time you give interviewers for questions now or later.

Ending with time to spare

Lastly you want to end your presentation with time to spare for questions for you and the audience. This is the final opportunity for your interviewers to ask questions about the work and dive into the specifics.

Most importantly have questions for them too — this is something you can include in your own onsite packet. I once interviewed a senior design manager who came from a well known company to present his work. The portfolio was solid and he was able to talk about his past experience and how he helped designers grow in their careers. In the end, he did good on time and had 15 minutes for questions. We asked him questions and presented him the opportunity to ask us in turn. However he didn’t ask any. Don’t make the same mistake, come prepared.

When you’re heads down, operating on your presentation, it’s hard to step back and do a practice run. I get it. But I do hope that this will encourage you to think hard about how you frame your message not just what you choose to present. Ultimately a combination of strong content and engaging presentation will lead to a memorable experience in the eyes of your audience that will separate you from other designers.

Strong content, presented in a good light leads to higher audience engagement

What’s next?

In the next article in the mastering product design interviews series we’ll cover how to approach the next hurdle, whiteboard exercises. We’ll dive into basic objectives, approaches and methods.

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