How to Build an Awesome Portfolio To Stand Out In Your Job Search
I recently posted a story on LinkedIn that got a lot of attention:
So many people reached out to me directly with questions, because they wanted to learn how to create a portfolio to showcase their work.
This post will include answers to these questions and my advice on how to build a portfolio.
Let me start by saying there is no template. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to creating a portfolio because it needs to tell your story, not a general story. I’ll share some ideas and suggestions, but eventually, it will be up to you to decide what to include in your portfolio and how and when to present it.
What is a portfolio?
The simplest and easiest explanation I can give you is this: a portfolio is a visual and emotional representation of your career journey and notable achievements. It’s an engaging way to tell your story and show potential employers what you are capable of.
What a portfolio is not
Your portfolio is not just a visual representation of your resume. It can include your resume or link to it but it really shouldn’t look like your resume, otherwise, what’s the point?
What is the goal of your portfolio?
Your portfolio should tell a coherent story about who you are and demonstrate who you could be for the hiring company. The main goal of your portfolio is to show hiring managers you are the ideal candidate for the role you are applying for by:
Highlighting the most relevant achievements
Demonstrating your thought process
Helping hiring managers imagine what it would be like to work with you
You can use a portfolio to help you land a new job or when you are applying for promotion internally. The goal will be the same - to demonstrate who you are and what you can do.
What is the best format for my portfolio? There is no right or wrong answer here. You can create an online portfolio, a pdf, or a hard copy. It really depends on how you want to use it and how much you want to invest in creating your portfolio.
A digital version may require some design skills to create (although website builders like Wix make it really easy). An online portfolio will also be public. If you are not comfortable sharing your story with the world, you may want to consider a different option.
On the other hand, a digital portfolio looks impressive and could generate organic leads (people may find you through your portfolio).
Another option is to create a presentation or PDF file. It’s easier to create (especially if you use Canva) and doesn’t require any technical skills. A portfolio document is not public, so you can control who sees it. On the other hand, sending big files by email can be challenging (it might go to spam or get stuck), but you can easily overcome that by saving your portfolio to your Google Drive and sharing it with the relevant people.
Lastly, you can create a hard copy to leave behind or review during an interview. It’s a great way to make an impact when you have the opportunity to meet in person. One downside is that it could be harder to share a hard copy internally so other team members can see it, but you can offer a digital version in addition to the print one.
When and how should I share my portfolio?
1. You can have an “always-on” approach by creating a personal website to serve as your portfolio. This way if anyone searches for your name online they could land on your portfolio.
2. You can link to your portfolio from your resume and LinkedIn profile.
3. You can send it to the recruiter or hiring manager before an interview to set the context of the conversation.
4. You can send it as part of your thank you or follow up email following an interview to improve your chances or seal the deal.
5. You can leave hard copies as leave-behinds for interviewers to review, with instructions to review more via your website or online portfolio. These leave-behinds can be especially helpful for research, a trifold brochure, or a longer-form piece where an interviewer may prefer to read a printed copy.
Okay, so what should be included in my portfolio?
Your portfolio should include anything that serves your goal of demonstrating who you are and what you are capable of, but it also needs to be short, digestible, and engaging. That means you shouldn’t include your entire work history or everything that happened to you since you were six.
There are tons of advice online about what to include, I’ll share what my portfolio contains below, but here are a few ideas to get you started: - Introduction (about me)
- Mission/vision (your “why”)
- Work examples/deliverables (an article you wrote, video you created)
- Case studies highlighting your achievements (problem, process, solution, results - your classic STAR)
- Processes you’ve created/improves
- Strategic decisions (negotiating with a vendor to reduce costs, team structure, budget allocation)
- Keynotes, interviews, thought leadership content
- Awards and recognition
- Professional recommendations
A few more ideas:
- Before and after screenshots (thank you Kristine Bezbaile)
- A value validation project (follow Austin’s step-by-step guide)
- A passion project (I used to include my podcast) or volunteer work
- A timeline of your career highlighting one key learning every year or with every job
- A personal video message
How to build a portfolio
Your instincts may tell you the first step should be to go look at your resume, but that’s not what you should do when you are building your portfolio.
The first step is to define the ideal candidate profile for the role you are trying to land.
Here is how you can do that:
Run a LinkedIn search for the role you want and look for relevant job descriptions. Read at least 5 descriptions and put together a list that highlights the main qualifications they all have in common. If you are creating this portfolio to match a specific opening you applied for, use that specific job description as your guide.
Look at the list of qualifications and ask yourself: what are the 3 most important requirements? What are the biggest pain points this role will solve? (focus on “must-haves” not “nice to have”). Your portfolio and story need to showcase these skills.
Now look at your resume, your certificates, projects, values, and skills and figure out which ones are the most relevant for the story you want to tell. Use these questions to decide what should be included in your portfolio: - Does it add something that wasn’t obvious or demonstrable on my resume? - Does it show results/achievements (not responsibilities)? - Does this information contribute to my story? Does it fit into the ideal candidate profile? - Does it demonstrate my thought process, strategic thinking, or leadership skills? - Does it help the hiring manager imagine/feel what it would be like to work with me?
Create an outline for your story. You can tell your story based on a time-line or group achievements that demonstrate the same skills. Make sure your story has a logical flow that will be easy to follow.
Keep your portfolio short and engaging. Use descriptive headlines, focus on high-level achievements but add a personal touch.
Here are a few examples:
Examples of deliverables to demonstrate your thought process: Instead of saying “I know how to write compelling messaging” share screenshots of your SWOT analysis, positioning matrix, or competitive research results (note: only share visual highlights. No one wants to see a screenshot of a Word document with text). This is a great way to show you follow a structured process. In addition, you can show before and after screenshots - old messaging on your website vs. the new one.
Example of a portfolio section that shows strategic thinking:
- Share a screenshot that shows how you allocated the yearly budget
- Discuss a process you improved by showing a comparison table with before and after data points
1. Scott Barker's "Value Validation Project" portfolio
In his own words, this is a "mock webinar deck" that he put together to try to convince Sales Hacker, Inc. to take a shot on him. This portfolio tells a personal story and demonstrates what Scott could actually deliver if he got the role (spoiler, he got the role).
2. Adam Brown’s portfolio
This is a great example of adding a personal touch! Adam is an electrical engineer, a very technical profession, but somehow he made his work sound like a lot of fun. His portfolio made me think of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man.
3. Aja’s social proof portfolio
Aja has a unique portfolio that demonstrates what she does, but also who she is. She has an awesome recommendations sections (what people say about her) and a section showcasing her as an industry authority.
4. Stefany’s case study based portfolio
Stefany created a great portfolio that is based on individual case studies. She keeps her examples short and to the point and includes results, to demonstrate her success.
In conclusion Whether you are looking for your next role or eying a promotion, a portfolio is a great way showcase your abilities and stand out.
By the way, there is a scientific explanation to why a portfolio works well. It's because visual content can trigger emotions. Visuals are processed quickly in the brain, so they cause a faster and stronger reaction than words. Visuals help the reader engage with the content, and the emotional reactions can lead to a higher level of information retention making you more memorable as a candidate.
I've been using a portfolio for years, but don't take it from me:
As I mentioned before, there is no template for a great portfolio because your portfolio needs to tell your story using your words and associations.
Take the first step, build your first version and test it.
Collect feedback, tweak your portfolio and try again. When interviewers start referring to your portfolio during the interview without being prompted, you'll know it's working.