Storytelling for Success

7 minutes, 1 link


Updated August 25, 2022
Land Your Dream Design Job

You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

To make an impactful presentation, turn it into a story. You’re the hero of your own script. What trials on your path gave way to triumphs? Let’s break this down into three parts: presentation, project, and process.

Figure: Presentation, Projects, and Process

The majority of your presentation will be spent on process, but don’t skip context.

Presentation Outline

Your overall in-person portfolio outline will be similar to this:

  1. Title. Your name and interview date.

  2. Background. A snapshot of your education, skills, and experience.

  3. Projects overview. A snapshot of the projects you’ll be presenting.

  4. Projects. Detailed case studies of two or three projects.

  5. Thank you. The last slide and cue for interviewers to ask more questions.

  6. Additional projects. A few projects you might want to show to provide detail. These can come handy during one-to-one interviews.

Don’t skip the intro! Introducing yourself, your background, and the projects you’ll be showing sets the tone for the rest of the presentation.

Project Outline

Unlike a scannable online portfolio, you’ll want to keep your audience in some suspense and excitement. A mix of problem setting and storytelling is helpful:

  1. Problem. What was the issue that was identified; who raised it?

  2. Context. What was the company, the team, and the time frame, and what role did you play?

  3. Process. How did you do the work from initial discovery through to concepts, iteration, research, and collaboration with cross-functional partners?

  4. Outcomes. What was the result?

  5. Lessons learned. What would you have done differently given everything you know now?

You’ll spend the most of your presentation on process, showing your approach, how you framed the problem and moved the project forward while overcoming obstacles along the way. This is an excellent place to think of a narrative arc for each project.

The hero’s journey is one framework you can use to add a layer of excitement to your case study.

Figure: The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a popular framework for effective storytelling.

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Here’s how the framework can be translated for design:

  1. You. About you and your background.

  2. Call to adventure. You found a big problem that no one saw.

  3. Refusal. But you already had many projects at the time.

  4. Mentor. A former manager encouraged you to take the first step.

  5. Crossing the threshold. You decided to re-prioritize your projects.

  6. Allies. As you embarked on your journey, you found support from engineering and research teams.

  7. Innermost cave. You created different concepts to address the problem.

  8. Ordeal. You tested your concepts and many of them failed…

  9. Seizing the sword. But you found solutions that worked and developed stronger bonds with your researcher counterpart.

  10. Journey back. As you started implementing the solution and working closely with the team, new challenges emerged.

  11. Resurrection. Finally, you were able to overcome these challenges and emerge with a new solution that no one had thought of before.

  12. Elixir. You obtained new knowledge, moved metrics, and acquired customer love.

Don’t force yourself to use all the elements, as it might make your case study formulaic and rigid. Instead, take a few that lend themselves well to your project already and build them out.

Process Ingredients

Talking about process lets interviewers peek behind the curtain on how you approach the work. This is an opportunity to show what matters most to you and what methods you use to inform and evolve your work at each stage.

Figure: Process Ingredients

You choose the process ingredients for the best result. Photo by Calum Lewis

Here are some process ideas worth considering for your slides:

  1. Problem framing. How did you reframe the problem you were given?

  2. Synthesis. How did you synthesize data from different sources to understand the problem at hand?

  3. Constraints. How did you overcome the constraints of a project (lack of money, time, and so on)?

  4. Data science. What did the quantitative analysis tell you?

  5. Compromise. When did you have to lose a battle to win the war? How did you navigate tough decisions?

  6. Rough sketches, whiteboards, sticky notes. Don’t just include the sticky notes, but tell a story why a rough sketch helped you move forward in the design process.

  7. User research. What validation have you done? Did you survey, interview customers, or test out the competition?

  8. Changing requirements. Did the requirements change on you mid-project? Take that opportunity to highlight your adaptability.

  9. Technical constraints. What system issues did you encounter? How did you collaborate with engineering to come to a great solution together?

  10. Conflict with co-workers. You wanted to zig but they wanted to zag—how did you resolve differences?

  11. Ideas left behind. You had to move fast and not everything got implemented. What was left out and what would you take forward?

Presenting a compelling (not comprehensive) narrative is your main goal, so don’t be afraid to leave things out.

important Put extra work in the appendix. It may be tempting to add a lot of context and describe your process from beginning to end. If your deck is starting to get over 60 slides however, watch out for timing. If there are additional details that don’t significantly alter your story, include those in the appendix. If questions come up, you can always pull from that section. This will also free you up in delivering a strong presentation from the beginning since you’re not worried about going over time.

Write a Script

Now that you have all the key ingredients, it’s time to write a script. This may sound like extra work, and you may even wonder, isn’t a script going to make me sound stiff and predictable? Nothing could be further from the truth. A script allows you to see a bird’s-eye view of the presentation and ensures that you don’t lose sight of key points you want to communicate.

As you’re writing out your script, take note of your presentation’s flow. When you’re done, present your portfolio in the mirror as if you’re interviewing yourself. Time it. Inevitably you’ll need to pause and make adjustments to the script. After doing a couple of run-throughs with it, not only will you improve your content but you’ll by then have it memorized to the point of it becoming second nature.

Next, present your work to friends. Lure them in with snacks, but get them hooked with the story. When you start interviewing, don’t stop improving the presentation deck. If you get confused looks, yawns, or people checking their phones, that’s a sign.

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