Some years ago, the design hiring manager at Reddit walked out of my interview mid-presentation.
I was embarrassed, and a little upset.
That's not the right way to respond to someone who is clearly the wrong candidate.
But it encouraged me to take a look at how I could improve my portfolio presentations.
Later, I found myself in the hiring manager's seat and it became clear why some candidates bomb while others consistently crush.
Let's take a look.
1. Consider the hiring manager’s perspective
Some organizations have dedicated managers while others are hybrid-contributors. Regardless, all hiring managers are busy, stressed, and eagerly looking for your help. I'd often find myself hosting an interview immediately after an exhausting product meeting where all I wanted was an excuse to match the candidate with the role so we could begin alleviating our need for help. Hiring managers are as eager to hire as candidates are to work. Consider how your presentation makes this goal easier and achievable.
2. Be candid and casual
Some people are naturally charismatic while others experience anxiety with public speaking. Hiring managers know this, and we often give you the benefit of the doubt. If you're the latter, change your mindset from "I'm being tested" to "this is just a conversation". Talk about your work like you would with a friend. Be honest about your work and speak plainly - this will save everyone time in deciding if there is a match.
3. Show me the drama
Identify 1 or 2 moments of conflict and resolution. Where did things start to go wrong? What was a major challenge for you or your team? How did you navigate it? Show me your ability to work through the messy bits of product and design and highlight those moments for a more compelling story and a better look at how you work.
4. Avoid superficial details
There's nothing hiring managers see more than portfolio presentations that try to fit into the "design thinking" process or start out with elementary details like "this was my role, these were my skills, and this is who I worked with." Yes, those details are important, but they're also going to come out in the more interesting parts of the story. Avoid elementary details and get right into the meat of the project.
5. Don't over-contextualize
Most industries are complex or nuanced, and you might think you need to set the stage for your presentation. As a rule of thumb, don't use more than one slide to provide business context. You have a small window to get the hiring manager the information they need to move forward with you - make the most of it. Use this opportunity to exercise brevity (a great design skill). Most designers overestimate how much context is necessary to get their point across (and hiring managers take note when you lack the ability to communicate concisely).
6. Don't fabricate your strengths, double-down on them
When you apply for a new role, you may discover that some of the job requirements are skills you haven't demonstrated before. Some designers get the urge to fabricate (e.g. "we talked about design system, so I'll just say that we had one!" But this only sets yourself up for failure. Instead, lean heavily into the job requirements that you can demonstrate. Proactively highlight the areas you don't have experience with and express enthusiasm for why those areas are interesting to you.
7. Talk about YOU
Hiring managers aren't trying to hire your previous company. We're trying to hire YOU - so talk about YOU. Yes, it's a good quality to show your understanding that this is a team sport. But kick off your presentations by saying, "there were a lot of folks involved in making this a success, but for efficiency, I'm going to focus on my contributions." Tell me about YOUR challenges, YOUR decisions, YOUR opinions and YOUR successes or failures.
8. Find the big story in little projects
Don't underestimate the big stories you can tell about minuscule design work. Tanner Christensen talks about his friend in big tech who gave a 30 minute presentation about changing a few checkboxes to toggle switches by highlighting his research and the history of the patterns. You can use small design work as opportunities to really dig into your thinking, how you research, and why you made each decision. You can help set the stage by saying something like, "Designing a login page shouldn't be that hard, but little did I know..." and kickoff into the micro-drama.
I hope this was helpful and gives you some guiding light for your next portfolio presentation.