A technical communication portfolio showcases your signature work products that make you stand out to recruiters, act as your own curated cheat sheet for you to use during an interview, and help you land a job. Especially for recent graduates or career changers who may not have much job experience to put on a résumé, a portfolio demonstrates that you have enthusiasm for the work and the ability to do it. But how to get started or refresh your portfolio? Try these 5 steps to prepare your portfolio, and check out STC Carolina’s 3-part series on technical communication portfolios, kicking off this Saturday, August 22 at 9am.
Step 1: Target a specific technical communication role
A common portfolio objective is to land a job. Therefore, it’s important to know what type of job you want so that you can tailor your portfolio to it. Even in the field of technical communication, there are still so many different roles: technical writer, editor, content strategist, information architect, or instructional systems designer, to name a few. To hone in on the job you really want, try the following exercises:
- Make a list of all the things you’re good at
- Make a list of all the things that interest you (even if you haven’t explored them fully)
- Make a list of how you want to feel at your next job
- Make a list of 10 things you want in your next job and prioritize the top 5
- Make a list of as many jobs as you can think of
- Reconcile the list of jobs against your strengths, interests, and priorities
- Research 3-5 of these jobs, finding job descriptions online, seeing who’s doing it, and asking how he or she got there
- Pick 1 job to pursue
For example, if the job you decide to pursue is “technical writer for software documentation,” your portfolio should look different than if you pursued “content strategist for social media marketing.”
Step 2: Select the right medium for the role you chose
The portfolio medium also depends on the job you’re pursuing. Look for the industry standard and ask what other people are doing. The following table describes some common portfolio mediums and why you might use them.
Industry or role
Government, industrial, finance,
"old school" corporate
Hard copies are increasingly less common of a requirement, but might still be used in industries where printed manuals are still common, such as proposals in government contracting firms. Hard copies can also be helpful for yourself, as something you can bring with you in an interview or job fair, and use to talk to or showcase a proofpoint in real time.
Most industries still use some form of electronic communications.
Electronic copies are like hard copies, but more portable. These might include PDF files, zip files, or a shared link to a Google Drive or similar folder. Even if you use a different medium, like hard copy, website, or social media, you'll find it useful to have at least a few shareable docs to pull up, send out, and talk to.
Tech sector or IT roles within other sectors
Websites might be blog-based, like WordPress, or static pages, like Wix or a GitHub pages site. They typically require higher investment upfront to set up, but can be a useful tool for building your longterm brand, especially if you're interested in independent contracting one day.
Marketing and outreach roles in any industry
Social media can be a powerful tool to help you establish your brand identity, and is a portfolio in and of itself. Consider having separate personal and private accounts. You can also use social media to get feedback and share assets from your portfolio, such as blog posts from your website or electronic copies of showcase pieces.
Step 3: Put together your materials and work samples
Now that you’ve determined your medium, you’re ready to begin building your portfolio. Remember, you must select materials that are relevant to the job you want to land. You have a few options for pulling together your portfolio pieces: gathering existing portfolio pieces, refining previous work into portfolio pieces, and writing new portfolio pieces.
The simplest and easiest place to start is to add your existing pieces to your portfolio. These might include:
- List of skills
- Degrees, licenses, certifications
- Letters of recommendations, references, testimonials, or reviews
- Awards and accomplishments
- Work samples
Maybe you’re asking, “What if I don’t have any existing portfolio-ready pieces?” Especially if you’re a recent graduate or career changer, it can be hard to identify relevant work samples. However, you have likely worked on some written communication products, so take a minute to identify some.
- Procedure or policy manuals
Next, make a plan to transform them into portfolio pieces. Were they assignments you submitted? Use your teacher’s feedback to make them even better. Are they very text-heavy? Shorten them and try to add a diagram like a process flowchart. Even if the materials are sensitive to a client, see if you can redact any information so you can use the piece, or consider writing up a summary of the project following something like the STAR method and including that in the portfolio as a project.
It can be daunting to write new and relevant work samples, right? If it’s hard for you to think of a topic to write to, ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I good at?
- What are my interests?
- What would I like to be good at or learn?
- What’s interesting about me?
Then, think about what types of companies or agencies would benefit from the answer to these questions, and see if they need help. For example, in the technology sector, you could try to contribute to an open source software project, even if it’s just cleaning up grammar in a README doc. Or, many nonprofit and government websites could use a little love: why not try writing a quick-start manual, mocking up some prototypes for a new website navigation design, or rewrite a page in a before/after sample? You can even send your work to the group to see if they’ll incorporate your feedback.
Looking for feedback on your portfolio piece? The annual STC Carolina competition is a great way to improve. There is also a before/after portion if you do not have an existing piece, with prizes for the best “after” improvement!
Step 4: Make your portfolio visually appealing
There are a million different ways to design your portfolio, but here are some good rules-of-thumb to follow:
- Organize your materials
- “Like with like” (for example, tech comm samples together, graphic design samples together, academic samples together)
- Clear, logical categories
- Skimmable and simple
- Larger text
- Visually appealing
- Consistent, aesthetic, personal
- Mobile-friendly (scalable)
One of the most important elements of portfolio design is how you introduce your work samples. You want to give some type of lead-in to the materials themselves, such as:
- Article titles, subheadings, and pictures
- Short excerpts
- STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) narrative
Does my portfolio pop?
Try the 5-second test. Show a friend or peer your portfolio for only 5 seconds, and ask them what their first impression is, what skill stands out, and what role they think you’re targeting.
Step 5: Include materials you’d usually need for an application
You want to make it as easy as possible for casual readers of your portfolio to connect with you further, and this usually means including your résumé and/or biography as a section of your portfolio. This is a space where you can tell us what you do best and why you’re the best person for the job. Include your contact details so recruiters or hiring managers can reach you!
- Update your résumé and portfolio about annually. If you wait until you “need to,” you might have a lot more work than you thought!
- Share, share, share. You might include your portfolio as part of your email signature, and include links in your social media accounts.
Still have portfolio questions? Attend the STC Carolina portfolio series
- Portfolio 101: Saturday, August 22nd at 9:00 a.m. EDT
- Portfolio 201: coming in mid-September
- Portfolio Critique and Workshop, coming in mid-October
Victoria is a proposal manager at ACLC LLC, a training, education, and technology integration company that works with U.S. government entities. She also helps with the STC Carolina competitions committee. She would like to thank Christina Mayr for her mentorship in the STC Carolina program, and for helping to focus the theme of this blog post.