Portfolio Presentation: Public Speaking Tips

13 minutes


Updated October 11, 2023
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Amplify your message and engage your audience. Your speech will be part script, part improv. Here we’ll cover presentation basics from where to sit to how to end on a high note. These days many companies are shifting in-person portfolios to online conference calls. While the context is different, many of the same tips still apply.

Your Content on a Silver Platter

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 ambience, the music, and the way your dish was presented all played into a delectable experience at first bite.

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.

Setting up the Environment to Your Advantage

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

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.

Build 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 the time to say hello and ask questions about how to get your laptop to project with whatever setup they have. This usually takes a while, so get ready to troubleshoot.

Silence Notifications

“Hey bae, what u up 2 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.

Find Your Stage

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 see what you’re presenting so you can point out specific things, and connect with your audience while observing the room.

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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.

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 off-site.

Setting up Your Remote Environment to Your Advantage

Since COVID has made remote interviews common, it helps to set up your space in advance and to get familiar with the conferencing software.

Presenting with Multiple Screens

Depending on how your home setup works, you may have one or two extra monitors in addition to your laptop. Usually the laptop will have a camera but the displays will not. Since you’ll want to face your interviewers, my recommendation is to project your presentation on your display in front of you, while having your presentation notes (if you’re presenting in a note-style format) in front of you on the laptop.

Camera Setup

Although there’s plenty of advice out there about how you can buy a better camera or even link up a DSLR to a computer, the truth is most of the interview will be focused on your presentation. Even in your behavioral interviews, it’s likely that you’ll have to pop back into your portfolio to show an example or two. So it’s OK to use the standard camera on your laptop. Just make sure the lens is clean and you’re in a place that has plenty of natural light so that people can clearly see you and your face.

Test Everything Before the Presentation

As you may know by now, I’m a huge fan prototyping, whether it’s your pitch or your portfolio. So it should be no surprise that you need to prototype your remote setup as well. Hop on a conference call with a friend (or even with yourself from another device, like your mobile phone). Try to simulate the real interviewing setup as much as possible. Use the conferencing tool that the company you’re interviewing with will be using. You want to make sure everything is properly installed and you have the right permissions enabled so that you don’t run into any issues while presenting, thus avoiding wasting precious time during the interview. Lastly, this will also help you develop that muscle memory for how to quickly share your screen.

Speaking Tips for Success

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 with 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, what are 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 signed up with Toastmasters, a public speaking club that would meet weekly. The basic course alone was inexpensive and provided a good step-by-step foundation to practice various speech techniques in a safe space.

The following tips 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 your presentation, you want to keep a good rhythm going. Sometimes nerves will get the better of you and you might speak too fast, trying to cover a lot of ground. Alternatively, you might get bogged down in 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’ll likely be aware of when to check yourself.

Usually, good moments for a time check are at the end of your intro (first ten minutes), your first case study (middle of the presentation), and your last or second case study (with ten 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.

Take a Deep Breath, Pause for Questions

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.

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 information from coming in.

Ultimately, you’ll have to practice your facilitation skills here—how much time you give interviewers for questions now or later.

End 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 on-site packet.

storyI 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 then gave him the opportunity to ask us questions—he didn’t have any. Don’t make the same mistake.

Practice, Practice, Practice

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.

important If you give speeches regularly (and most folks don’t) then you can get away with less practice. But if you don’t and are feeling rusty, a general rule of thumb is to spend about ten times as much time practicing a speech as giving it. Now this might seem like a lot—a one-hour presentation would equate to ten hours. But if you’re presenting your portfolio to multiple companies and you’re interviewing in several places, this number becomes much more reasonable.

Behavioral Design Interviews19 minutes, 2 links

Behavioral interviews usually follow soon after your design presentation and the various design exercises. I’ll break this interview format down by function: outside of design, you’ll learn how to build rapport with product management, engineering, and research. You’ll want to build rapport and get people excited to work with you. I’ll also share best practices with stories of success and failures along the way.

Behavioral Interview Format at a Glance

The goal of cross-functional interviews is to get a 360-degree view of how you approach your work and collaborate with others. Typically these will be one-on-one interviews about 30 minutes each or one-hour pair interviews.

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