In contracting, unlike in the stock market, past performance is a reliable indicator of future success—at least in the minds of your clients. Almost all clients want to see samples of your previous work if they’re considering hiring you for a project.

It’s a reasonable request, but it’s often easier said than done. How do you show your work to future clients without violating confidentiality agreements with previous clients? How do you condense thousands of lines of code into a brief presentation? What do you do if your type of work doesn’t lend itself to neat presentation?

In this article, I’ll offer advice on what to include in your portfolio, possible forms it can take, and how to make it an effective part of your client presentation.

First in a series

This article gives contractors and consultants pointers on presenting their work to potential clients. The next installment will help you “sell” the idea of including your work in your portfolio for future clients.

How much should a portfolio weigh?
A common reason contractors don’t have a portfolio is that they don’t know how to present their work. You should discard the notion of a portfolio as a big thick binder.

Even though I specialize in documentation, my solutions take many forms: I have produced printed manuals, but I’ve also created online help systems and intranet solutions. Part of my portfolio is a big thick binder, but I also use a CD in my presentation.

You may find that burning your work onto a CD provides the best way to present it. Another possibility is to create a slide show using screen captures of, for example, a program you wrote, a database interface you designed, or the main pages of a Web site you created.

Isolate small pieces that demonstrate the whole
Other problems that some contractors face in assembling a portfolio are that they work on huge projects whose complexities can’t be easily summarized or that their specialty doesn’t lend itself to easy presentation. The answer to both issues is to break out a small piece of the work you’ve done and find the appropriate way to present it.

For example, I’ve written documents that comprise hundreds or even thousands of pages. I don’t include them in my portfolio in their entirety, although I may haul one along separately for added heft.

Instead, I include the title page for orientation; the table of contents to attest to the breadth of the document, and then a series of representative pages to demonstrate how I present information. I make sure to retain the original numbering, such as Page 443 of 1045, so that the client knows this is a piece of a larger whole.

Breaking down my work allows me to move quickly through several documents and prevents the client from distractedly flipping through hundreds of pages.

Show how you solve problems
Every element in your portfolio should highlight a problem you’ve solved. Look for work samples that highlight solutions you can apply to other projects.

For example, I updated an operations manual for a manufacturing company in part by supplementing written instructions with digital photography. In my portfolio, I included one page from the outdated manual and one updated page with more concise language and a photograph with labels on the machine parts used in the procedure.

This two-page sample demonstrates to clients that I can reorganize and clarify information—a skill as important in writing for IT as for manufacturing.

You can apply the same principle to other types of work as well. You can’t bring along an entire company that you rewired, but you can display “before” and “after” networking diagrams. You can include a screen shot of an e-commerce solution that’s easy to understand and navigate.

Presenting your portfolio
Assemble your portfolio with an eye toward how you’ll present it. If I presented every document I’ve ever written in its entirety, I’d need a wheelbarrow to get my portfolio into a client’s office.

Instead of trying to impress with volume, strive for a modular approach. Group related work samples so you can easily remove many or all of the samples that have no relevance to the project your potential client has on hand.

Make sure your portfolio is well organized and that you can move quickly from one sample to the next. Present your background information about the project orally instead of preceding the sample with a summary paragraph.

You want to keep the client’s attention on you, not on a bunch of prepackaged bullet points.

Always walk the client through your portfolio. If you include small chunks of your work, you should be able to quickly flip or click your way through and supply all the background information a client needs. If the client wants to look at something more closely, you can spend a few minutes on that element.

Never leave your portfolio with the client. If a client wants more time to examine the materials in the portfolio, suggest scheduling a review meeting when you can be present. Remind the client that you must honor your agreements with previous clients to keep the work you produce for them secure.

Reasonable clients will understand, and they’ll also be more willing to let you include your future work for them if they know you won’t let another company scrutinize it too closely.

How do you show your past work to potential clients?

So you’re in the interview and they want to see what you’ve done for past clients. How do you present your past projects? Send us an e-mail and tell us how.