What’s something you can easily do in 30 seconds? Wash your hands? Run up a flight of stairs? Decide someone’s future?
A designer in one of my recent workshops was upset to learn that his audience might only look at his portfolio for 30 seconds. He asked how he could possibly convince someone to choose him in such a short time. I understand. It sounds impossible. But trust me – it can be done, and it’s not as difficult as you might think.
The thing to remember is that you don’t need to tell your entire life story in that 30 seconds. You just have to get your audience to notice you. If you can get their attention, they’ll take the time to read further or come back to you later. The way to do that is to share your greatness – your unique and amazing self!
Unfortunately, a lot of people are hesitant to put themselves out into the world, so instead they try to play it safe by describing their work in a really general way. I see this happen all the time, and it doesn’t work. But here are three tips that will help you stand out, along with examples showing how to apply them in your next portfolio submission, cover letter, application essay, or interview.
The main purpose of getting your audience to look at your portfolio, cover letter, or application essay is to help them get to know you, right? Same if you get the chance to interview. So don’t hold back when you finally get their attention for a brief moment! You’ve got to make an impact and do it quickly, so connect with them by making your interactions personal.
I recently saw a great quote in my Instagram by @sunbeamillustration that read “No one is you and that is your power.” So true! The best way to get and keep the attention of your audience is to share a bit of yourself with them. Help them feel like they’re getting to know you and make them want to learn more! After all, if someone is looking to work with you, they want to know what you’re like as a person and as a member of a team. The best way to show that is to let your personality shine.
It’s really important to include your name and a photo of your face in the About section of your portfolio. Your work is important, but who is behind that work? This is often your introduction to your audience, so give them a name and a friendly face to make that introduction with. It’s also a good idea to mention what you’re passionate about and what you’re looking for in your career.
There are no images to fall back on here, so it’s even more important that your writing connects with your audience. Make every word count! Some people feel the need to write in a really formal, serious manner when they write an essay or cover letter because they want to sound professional. Being professional is good, but that doesn’t mean you need to be painfully serious. Try to write the way you would talk to your audience in person. If you read your letter or essay aloud and it feels weirdly formal, try to go back and make it sound more personal, like you’re telling a story.
Often, the first question in an interview is “Tell me a little about yourself.” This is your chance to make a great impression right away! Share a story about yourself that will help your audience connect and relate to you right away. Of course, it should be relevant somehow to your career or the job you’re applying for, but this is your best chance to add something interesting that might not otherwise fit their questions.
Details are what make any good story interesting, so be sure that yours include specific examples from your life. One good way to test whether your answers are specific enough is to consider whether all your peers can say the same thing. If so, it’s too general.
For example, everyone can say that they worked really hard to get where they are today. Boring. But most of my peers can’t say that they got a degree in Fine Art, worked a lot of freelance design jobs, pivoted to become an ESL teacher, and then started a language coaching business! That’s a much more specific way to say that I worked hard to get where I am today, right?
When you’re describing your work or process, try to avoid just giving the facts about what you did or writing about things that your audience can easily see. That’s a waste of their time. Instead, talk about why you made the choices you did and describe specific challenges you faced or how you overcame them. This type of information is much more valuable to your audience and will make you stand out from the crowd.
Don’t waste your reader’s time talking about general truths, famous quotes, or statistics. They can be used sparingly, but you should never rely on this type of information to fill up your letter or essay. I can assure you that the reader will quickly move on to the next person because you’re not sharing anything meaningful that will grab their attention. These readers have seen a thousand quotes and generic stories about inspiration, but they haven’t seen yours. Specific and personal stories are much better, so try to find good examples from your past to match the prompts.
It’s hard to get an interview, so once you have one, don’t waste that precious chance to tell your story. Practice talking about your work until you can do it in a way that gives a lot of specific details without rambling on for too long. A good way to focus is to choose your three most important takeaways from a project and describe those highlights with specific details. Practice by recording yourself or doing mock interviews with a friend (or a coach 😉).
The best way to connect with your audience is by sharing something memorable right away. So go all out! Grab their attention with an interesting story so they can’t easily forget you or confuse you with your peers.
Even if you don’t yet have a lot of projects, your audience will be impressed if you can tell a good story. Use your About page and the descriptions of your projects to show off that storytelling ability and really draw the reader into your work. If you’re passionate about what you do and can get your audience to connect or relate to that passion, they’ll be hooked and want to talk with you to learn more.
Some people fall into the trap of repeating the information from their resumes in their cover letters. This is a big mistake. The cover letter is the place where you get to decide what to talk about, so use it to share memorable pieces of your story that aren’t in your resume. Explain what you’re passionate about and why you want this job. Similarly, when you’re answering an essay prompt, share stories that will help your audience understand and relate to why you want this opportunity. It’s your chance to convince them that you’re worth interviewing, so tell them something that will help them connect with you and your hopes for the future.
Before your interview, try to think of one relevant but totally unique story element that you can share to help your audience remember you. After all, they might be talking to 20 different people in a week! You need to find a way to make yourself stand out in a positive way. When I first moved to California, I lived on a sailboat. Since that was a memorable piece of information to share, I would try to weave it into my story during interviews. Then later, even if the interviewer didn’t remember everything I said, they might still remember that I gave a good interview. “I remember that woman with the sailboat was interesting. What was her name again?”
If you’re thinking “This all sounds kind of risky,” you’re right. Being yourself means that your audience will see the real you and make a decision about you more quickly. Sometimes it may not be a good match, and that’s probably ok. I mean, do you really want to work in a place where you can’t be yourself? But when it is a good match, your audience will see that right away and be drawn to you. That’s how you beat the 30 seconds. Let your personality and passion shine through, and you’ll connect with the right people instantly.
This type of work can be really intimidating, so I’m here to support creatives in their journey. If you have questions about this post or are interested in working with a coach, send me an email. If you’d like to read more tips like these, you can sign up for my newsletter and get a free email series about how to tell your portfolio story.