10 tips to improve your professional portfolio

E-portfolios have gone mainstream, required in schools and expected in careers. While in some instances a platform is provided, the ease of using content management systems like WordPress or Wix puts an effective and free e-portfolio in reach of everyone. You can even use Google Sites.

But having an e-portfolio and having a good one are two different things. Here are some things you need to know:

1. You may (will) need more than one.

Because they are easy to make, and because they have so many places where they might help, you should now expect over the course of a career to have several. You might have a learning portfolio for an educational program, a professional one for career advancement, a temporary one for a promotion. Or for a project. You might need a different portfolio to represent different career paths or skill sets.

Depending on the circumstance, the e-portfolio may have dozens of pages, or it might have just one. The possibilities are endless, and the applications should be tailored. So any time you spend learning how to create an effective and attractive portfolio is time well spent.

2. Since you need more than one, you need a system for collecting and organizing your best work.

Creating portfolios for different needs requires you to have a well-curated collection of your best work. Find a place to organize and store digital files—and then pull out the ones you need for the portfolio at hand. Learning to collect, tag, and even name your files is an important skill, one that will serve you time and time again when you need the perfect example to demonstrate your competence, judgment or creativity. In can be a database, or a file structure, but you need a system that makes sense to you and grows as you do.

3. Every artifact requires a context. Every client requires an outcome.

One thing often missing is the context of the artifacts you collect and present. Learn to briefly and thoughtfully explain what you were doing or thinking, why you were doing the work, and what happened because you did it. If it was work for a client, what was their reaction? Testimonials are good. But more importantly, what happened because you did this? Outcomes, especially ones that can be quantified, are better than testimonials. As you are collecting the things you made, be sure to collect evidence of their impact.

4. Nobody cares that you wrote a paper or made a PowerPoint.

All of this matters because your instructor or boss, current or future, is not that impressed with your ability to make things. There are probably elementary school students right now making better Power Points than you are. Contexts and outcomes, however, reveal strategic thinking and actual results, compelling evidence of effective work. Whenever you put an artifact in your portfolio, take the time to write the accompanying narrative. Even if you have to revise it for a specific portfolio, you have captured the things that mattered and can write new and better copy when you need it.

Generally, include artifacts that provide visual impact. Just provide links to download longer documents and spreadsheets. The context is more important. Remember too that you may not need an artifact at all. Sometimes, all you need is a good story.

5. You are not the hero of the story. Your client was the hero, you were the guide.

As Donald Miller suggests in Building a Story Brand, you are not the hero. Remember this. Your portfolio needs to show you have helped others succeed, helped others reach their goals. To some degree, a portfolio tells your story, and for an educational portfolio, this is often important. But a professional or career portfolio works best when it tells the story of how you have helped others tell their story.

If someone is looking at it, they likely want help. Make it clear that you help people. Show as much client-facing work as you can, with clear, brief narratives that demonstrate you took the time to understand what they needed and you took the time to serve them well.

6. You can’t afford to mispell misspell a single word.

No matter what kind of portfolio you are working on, put your best professional foot forward. Get it right. Grammarly and spell check will not get this done. Read it out loud. Read it several times. Get another set of eyes on it. Being careless says one thing about you. Careless.

Why spend the time to collect and explain your best work and have your teacher or boss wince on the first page they see? This is important, and if you need to strengthen your skills find a tutor or take a class. Conquer your weaknesses. And learn to write for the web. Your portfolio is a website, after all. Short paragraphs. Bullet points. Subheads. Get better at this.

7. Each portfolio requires a unifying idea.

Not only is your e-portfolio a website, it’s a marketing website. Make sure you know what your brand promise is, even as a student and certainly as a professional. This may show up as a tagline or a statement. It may not be stated at all. But it should be clear to you what single important thing you want to say about yourself; the artifacts and narratives should support that.

The tricky part is you have to say this about yourself without talking about yourself, or at least not talking about yourself too much. Show don’t tell is the still some of the best marketing advice there is. Just make sure you know what you are trying to show. (Show don’t tell is good writing advice as well.)

8. It’s about what you learned, not about what you did.

The most important thing to showcase is a teachable spirit. In your narratives talk about what you learned. This includes what you learned by failing or might do differently or better next time. Show progress. Show your process. Show humility and growth. This is much more important than including a picture of your puppy on the home page. If you have shown, as we suggested earlier, that you have served others, and then you also show that you are willing and able to learn, these truly humanizing components connect to the emotions and vision of those who explore your portfolio.

9. The call to action for any portfolio is “Talk to me.”

You also have to make it easy to connect with you. Put your contact information in more than one place. Put it in the footer. Put it in the menu. Put it on every page. Don’t make them wonder how to connect with you. And don’t make them wonder if you even want them to. For almost any portfolio, even an educational one, the call to action is “talk to me.” Yes, be professional. But be available too.

10. You have to feed it. This is a lifelong project.

Finally, except in those occasional cases where you create a time limited portfolio for a specific job application or promotion, keep your professional portfolio(s) current. Put a reminder on your calendar to go back and review it. Replace good stuff with better stuff. Update the downloadable resume. Freshen up the images or design. Over the course of a career or education, you will outgrow your portfolio many times. Figure out its shelf life and use-by date.

Your next one will be even better.

Wally Metts teaches a portfolio class for seniors in the Department of Communication and Media at Spring Arbor University and has helped prepare credible, creative, Christian professionals for over 30 years. He is also director of an online graduate program in Strategic Communication and Leadership, which requires the development of a portfolio. Contact him.

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