Updated: Jun 15
"How do I tell my story?" This is a common question I'm asked by my coaching clients when we practice their portfolio presentations. In this blog post, we will explore four strategies for every portfolio that will help you use the language to communicate your story in a way that connects with your audience. We'll also talk about what types of projects you should include in your portfolio to best show off who you are as an architect! In this blog post, we will just be addressing the language we use, so for tips on graphical representation, I recommend checking out the free resources from Architorture.
Why Storytelling Matters
Architects are storytellers who translate the needs of their clients into structures and spaces that tell stories. When an architect designs a building, they are not just designing a structure for people to occupy; when a landscape architect designs a landscape, they are not just designing the physical space using trees and plants; they're also creating the framework for how we interact with it by establishing why. Likewise, storytelling allows us to understand who we are as a person and how our personality meshes with the world.
A portfolio is like a story - it is about your work and how you have grown through everything to get where you are. This is your story! Showcase the moments in your career that show why you matter and what makes you great. Your portfolio showcases your problem-solving abilities and how you reflect upon your successes and failures. If English is your second language, it's also very likely that you have overseas and international experience, which is great. You have a great opportunity also to consider how the projects you have worked on in different contexts have given you a different perspective.
You have a unique perspective! Don't forget that! We all experience architecture through the lens of our culture, so it would be an interesting exercise for you to explore how your own culture reflects some of the choices and design philosophies you have in your projects. So before we get into the blog post for today, I want to ask you this - what is it that makes you and your experience unique? What is it about you and your experience and your culture that helps you see the world uniquely? What twist do your eyes bring to a project because of what you have experienced?
What do you want your audience to go away feeling or inspired by at the end of your presentation? What action do you want them to take after hearing your story?
👉 Here are my top 4 tips to help you craft the story for your portfolio.
But before we begin, I want to remind you that we all have different ways of presenting our projects and presenting in general. If presenting is not something you're comfortable with, it's often good to sit down with someone who will give you honest feedback and without telling you what to do, will help you to explore exactly what story you want to tell and how you're going to tell it. This is why it's also important to know exactly who your audience is and what they want to hear.
1 Know your top values and make sure the images match so you can explain these values
What words and images come to mind when you think about what you value most as a designer? Innovation, creativity, seamless integration between landscape and building, design excellence, meticulous detailing?
Choose 3-5 words and make sure there is at least one image for each of these words spread across different projects that helps to demonstrate these values.
2 Show off your best work
Curate 5–10 projects that align with the kind of work you want to be doing and the work of the architecture practices you like. Clarify what your audience seeks by checking for keywords (verbs and adjectives) in the job description and their website and accentuate how your expertise, skills and uniqueness exceed their needs. Strive for flexibility and tailor what you show to the people viewing it.
Remember, respect the time and attention of your audience. Go deep on a few, broad on the rest — quality is what matters.
3 Know the Story you will tell
The story and narrative you tell in your portfolio can be as important as the work itself. Consider how your motivation, aspirations shape these narratives, what is highlighted or omitted from the content of a project, which contributes to it (i.e., designers/engineers), why I chose this particular project for inclusion — all have an impact. Consider all these points when you're preparing your portfolio:
Do you know clearly what each project will highlight? (Design skills, software capabilities, different scales of experience, collaboration, overcoming challenges, detail drawing
You might have one project that you consider your best. This one should come first but make sure you also have a strong project to end on also.
Do all the images contribute to the story? Have you removed the images that don't contribute extra information?
Does every project have detailed project information, including the most important part - your role? (Year, location, program, size, client)
Do you have at least one project that displays your software drawing skills and even hand sketching skills?
Do you feel connected in some way to the values you chose in all of your projects?
4 Be clear about your role
What leadership opportunities did you have in your organisation? How did that allow you to influence the project? Importantly, know how to describe each project with the STARI method:
Situation: set the project context (where, when, who, how, why)
Task: what was required?
Action: What was your role in the project?
Result: what happened in the situation?
Insight: Your learning or insight
The insight is the most important part of a project's description because it allows you to explain key aspects of divergent and convergent thinking. Highlight the barriers that you faced. How were you able to see beyond these barriers to communicate a bold, rational and achievable direction?
Insight is also about adding value to the story.
What about Storytelling?
For each project or image, what anecdote can you share? I remember a client once told me about how a particular project had helped her to feel more connected to her place of origin and another client explained how discussions during a community consultation has resulted in a change of habit and motivation around their work.
A project I once worked on had an incredible story behind it and every time I told the story in job interviews people felt more connected to the story rather than my role in the project! They could see how passionate I was about knowing more about, and connecting with people.
I was working on a memorial garden for a woman who had lost her late husband. The landscaper I was working with on the project was having trouble sourcing some recycled timber for a fence we had designed. He went everywhere to see what he could find and all the timber yards had nothing left. Until he finally arrived at his last possibility. When he came back to the site to tell the owner of the house where he had found the timber, she broke down crying tears of joy. As it turned out, the timber had come from the last dock in Melbourne where her husband had worked just before he died. It still gives me chills telling the story.
Why do people remember and connect to this?
Humans love to hear stories of hope, success and overcoming challenges so think about how your insights and learnings can help to tell more about the story of you and what you believe. It helps to show what you're passionate about, what you value and gives the audience an opportunity to see the world from your eyes. If you're interested in storytelling, I recommend this fantastic article on Harvard Business Review.
How can you use a story to connect to your audience?
👉 You'll find even more tips and Your Ultimate Portfolio Checklist to help you prepare your portfolio presentations by joining the free course Using English to Enhance Your Job Search on the Architecture Social.