Have you ever had anyone try to sell you a timeshare? If so, you’ll remember that the process doesn’t start with a hard sell. Instead, you’re treated to a pleasant weekend getaway — or at the very least, invited to view a beautifully shot and edited video designed to help you imagine what it would be like to spend a vacation with loved ones, relaxing in the luxury you so richly deserve.
These companies sell the vision first — and only then try to close the deal on the product. The vision is intangible, yet a talented salesperson can shape an inspiring story around it, building an emotional connection between you and what they’re selling. Remove the hard sell at the end, and a timeshare presentation is actually enjoyable and informative.
A good design presentation should be the same way. While you’re unlikely to be showing your audience lush slo-mo beach scenes (or ending by pressing them for a big down payment), you need to craft a cohesive, compelling narrative that accomplishes three goals:
- Connect your soft and hard skills (these are your products) to your work
- Communicate your design values (aka your vision) for the project
- Inspire your audience to empathize with the problem you’re solving, even if they’re not your target users
And to do all that, you need to tell a good story.
I’ve seen my fair share of portfolio presentations, many of which fail to engage their audience — because they never understand the story they want to tell. Don’t be like those guys. Instead, use these five tips to strengthen your presentation storytelling:
1. Skip the design process slide. It’s boring.
Today, most hiring managers understand the value that design brings to the team and to the bottom line — that’s why they’re hiring you, or someone like you. They understand the need to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. So don’t waste time justifying your existence.
That means there’s no need to spell out your process in a slide. Instead, use that process to shape the flow of your presentation — problem, research, iteration, and testing.
When I see a designer’s slide that talks about “their” process, I think “How is this different than any other designer that has come through to interview?” At this point in the discipline, process is a given. You wouldn’t have gotten an onsite interview if you — and they — didn’t already understand this.
Replace that tired process slide with one on your design values. Own it. Make it personal. And make it both specific to the problem and aligned with your discovery research.
2. Story = conflict.
Conflict is fundamental to any good story — if nothing changes, nothing happens.
I’m not talking about your problem statement here. Interviewers want to hear what barriers you hit and how you overcame them — or just as good, how you failed to do so and how much you learned from the experience. (Rarely does everything run smoothly from concept to production, so be human and don’t pretend it didn’t happen.)
Just as important, admitting, and even embracing, the bumps in the road shows your audience how you respond to problems and challenges. Explaining how you resolved problems during product development helps the audience to understand how you think, and makes your story more real and more engaging. And that inspires genuine curiosity in your audience, who will then ask more questions.
At some point during any onsite interview, you’ll get questions about pushback or cross-functional team conflict. Be professional, but don’t shy away from discussing these challenges. Weave the story of how you addressed them into your presentation, and it will speak to how you collaborate with others to build products. You’ll show the audience, most of whom could be your future colleagues, that you have the skills and understanding to work well alongside them.
Avoid examples involving top-down design decisions. While they may inspire empathy, they don’t give you the opportunity to demonstrate conflict-resolution or problem-solving skills.
3. Summarize your research.
You conducted many user testings sessions. Many. A whole bunch.
You received thousands of responses to your carefully crafted survey.
And then you spent months on so many research studies.
I know it’s tempting to want to show all the work you’ve done, but you must resist with all your strength. Don’t spend 10 slides showing all the quotes and metrics you collected. Instead, present only the most compelling responses and numbers on ONE digestible summary slide.
Think of this slide as the tip of the iceberg. Share your high-level findings, then move on to what you did with the insights you gathered. No need to worry that you’re not showing your entire research process, or every interesting thing you heard from users. They’ll ask if they’re curious about specifics.
Another powerful element of storytelling is surprise. After you spoke to end users, were there any twists and turns you didn’t expect? What did you do with the new information you gained?
4. Focus on one or two flows, max.
To stay engaged with your presentation, your audience must be able to follow along. One surefire way to lose them: subject them to too many user flows.
I can understand why designers do this — they want to show off all the work they did. Totally valid. But remove the focus from yourself, and put it where it will achieve your goals. You want to demonstrate how you solved the problem.
Replace all those user-flow overviews with a deep dive into one flow. To hold your audience’s attention, speak to how it plays into the larger feature or product.
Have a link to your live feature or a hi-fi prototype ready in a separate tab, in case interviewers ask for a more in-depth walkthrough after your presentation.
5. Use your takeaways to inspire discussion.
Lots of designers end with a slide summarizing what they learned from the project. This wraps up the presentation neatly — but that’s the last thing you want to do. Instead, use your takeaways to transition to an active discussion.
When you do talk about “learnings,” interviewers would much rather hear one insightful, relevant story than be led through a long bulleted list of generalities. And make them interesting; too many designers close with “I wish I’d spent more time on research” or “UX copy matters.” Depth and honesty drive interest, and inspire better discussion.
Tie your takeaways to design ethics and responsibility — resonant topics that designers at all levels have personal experience with.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
— Maya Angelou
Presenting a portfolio case study is as much art as it is science. And no matter how hard companies try to come up with objective hiring criteria, humans are doing the hiring, and we’re subjective creatures. Emotion and intuition drive many of our decisions, and stories help us connect emotionally to what we experience.
Interviewers may not remember your problem, your solution, or even your name. But they will leave that room with a positive or negative impression of you, based on how you made them feel. Based on how well you told a story.
Now go knock your next portfolio presentation out of the park.