The Six Elements of an Effective Presentation

Introduction | I: Presentation | II: Client Contact | III: Self-Promotion | IV: Estimating Fees | V: Estimating Expenses | VI: Coordination | VII: Execution | VIII: Expense Accountability | IX: Billing

As was noted in the introductory article of The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job, there are nine distinct phases that each assignment photography job must go through. That first article provided the overview of how each of the nine elements lead to the next and build upon each other. Each of the steps must be completed before you can move on to the next and complete the cycle which, in its totality, leads to the execution of a successful job. This installment is the first in a series of nine articles on each of those phases and deals with the all important first element of Presentation.

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We can all probably relate to the wisdom of the time honored adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The same holds true to how you present your work, when you open up a compendium of your talents in front of a complete stranger in the hopes of getting their attention and being considered for a photography assignment. You have put the full force of your energies, talent and visions into a body of work and now you are asking someone to put their reputation on the line to hire you. The thing that makes this so difficult from any other form of sales is that you are putting a piece of yourself—not some mass produced product—out for examination that could result in praise, or rejection, or worse, be ignored. It is extremely important to have some objective criteria by which you can judge the effectiveness of your portfolio of work.

Years ago, I used to participate in an event sponsored by the Advertising Photographers of America-Los Angeles called, “Show Us Your Best Shot,” in which about fifteen Art Buyers and Artist Representatives would individually spend about fifteen minutes each with photographers in a hectic one day portfolio review marathon. The scene was composed of a large studio space with long tables—art buyers and reps on one side, photographers with their books in hand waiting to be called. Because of the time constraints and the number of people, a typical review would go something like this: first, the photographer would lay their book in front of the reviewer. There would be some small talk about what they liked to shoot, and then the reviewer would leaf through the images making comments along the way such as, “that’s good,” “interesting,” “that’s terrible,” “love this,” “why did you put this in here?,” and so it would go until the fifteen minute bell was rung. Then the photographer would hastily assemble his book, and move on to the next reviewer only to get an entirely different review. As a rep, I always felt it was good for the artists to get such an instant, visceral response from the other reps and buyers, but I couldn’t see how the photographers could accurately judge all the comments because, most of the photographers I interviewed afterwards said they had gotten the impression that one third of their book was great, one third was borderline, and one third should be thrown out. The only problem was they were not sure which third was which. The dizzying effects of having so many opinions thrown at them all at once were helpful, but they needed something more substantive to hang their future on.

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Then, a few years later, I had the honor of hosting an APA presentation that was a panel discussion with professional photographers, and Art Directors on what makes a successful portfolio. There was heated discussion about the number of images, the size of books, laminated versus sleeved (this was a long time ago) photos, color versus black and white images, and so on. It wasn’t until we got to talking about the spirit of the work we chose to include in portfolios that we got to what I thought was the essence of putting together a collection of work that would be memorable, and cause the work to stand out. It was then that I took the lessons of that discussion and I started my quest for an objective format by which I could judge the effectiveness of a portfolio or presentation of an artists work. After a great deal of investigation on the matter I submit to you “The Six Elements of an Effective Presentation.”

What makes these six elements so unique is that they can be applied to any presentation, not only a portfolio. In other words you can use them to judge a commercial, a lecture, a play, a poem, a movie, any kind of presentation. It is insufficient to say, “I don’t know, I just like it.” You have to have a solid reason why the work moved you, why it rocked your world, or why it left you flat. The artist won’t be able to grow unless they have some trustworthy objective criteria with which to work. The universality of these six issues in combination facilitates the author to state his case and attract the appropriate audience.

1. Point of View

Here we go. The first element of an effective portfolio presentation is Point of View (POV). The author must be able to convey how they see the world in the most comprehensive and concise way. For example, as a viewer I prefer to first look at the work quietly, flipping the pages as though I was looking at the images in a slideshow. I don’t like to dwell on the images during this first go around; rather I want to get the full appreciation on how the artist sees the world. What, out of a universe of options, did the photographer decide to frame in the viewfinder that they want to share with me? I want to understand how they waited for the right moment, chose the correct person, or place, or circumstance to tell a story. I like to savor the spirit of the work as though I were enjoying a first sip of wine, get the full flavor, appreciate the color, experience the way the light glows through it, and savor the essence. Too often portfolios are boxes with an accumulation of competently executed images, but there is no soul there. I would rather see a book that tells me a story about the author’s state of mind than anything else. Ansel Adams used to say, “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”

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POV is important because it is the sum total of the author’s culture, education, employment history, hopes, and a whole host of other influences. It sets the tone for the rest of the book. Once I have that sense of what the author feels is most important, be it travel, or fashion accessories, or food, or portraits, or humanitarian causes, then I can start to see where its applications may lie. POV gets the conversation started. It lays out the possibilities; gives direction and the impetus to get there. A portfolio that lacks a coherent point of view is aimless. A boomerang that doesn’t return is just a stick, and similarly a portfolio without a point of view is just a stack of photos in an expensive case.

Once an artist asked me to take a look at his portfolio and when he laid his work in front of me he casually placed the first few images on the table. Those first images were pretty predictable pictures common to most beginning photographer’s portfolios. But then, with great care he took out one image of a beautiful scene of people around a campfire with the majestic purple-hued Rocky Mountains in the background, the whole scene capturing the magical moments before sundown. It was an exquisite work that instantly took me to that place. Then he took another image out and meticulously placed it before me and it was another breathtaking outdoor image; a statement of man at one with nature. I asked him what he had just done. He said, “What? I just placed my work in front of you.” “No,” I said, “You almost tossed those first images my way. But the last two were delicately handled and placed before me.” “Really?” he said, unconscious of the fact. “Why did you take such care in placing those and not the others?” I asked. He replied, “Because I really love those last images. I show the other ones because people have told me I can make money doing that kind of work, but I’m not really interested in doing that kind of work. Those pictures of the people outdoors, man, that’s what I really love to do.” The fallacy in that kind of reasoning was that he would probably get the work that pays that he is not interested in doing, and that will end up taking him away from investing the time in pursuing the clients that would love his work and want to hire him. (More about this will be explored in a future article on Client Contact). Have a point of view and the rest will fall into place.

A cautionary note has to be given here because I don’t want to give the impression that your POV should hinder you or pigeon-hole you or your work. The test is for you to express your visual diversity and show your knowledge of your skills and application of your tools to reinforce your viewpoint. It is imperative for you to have a broad common denominator that will allow you to explore, and discover, and interpret without straying too far from your theme.

2. Continuity

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The next element is Continuity. Once your POV has been established, the images in your portfolio must somehow link together to have a sense of connection. You could also call this element contiguity, but the issue is to reinforce your central outlook. Once you stray too far from the main concept you run the risk of confusing the viewer. You could have a portfolio that is all about food for example, but instead of each image being a variation on the same table-top image it could be foods of the world and the people that create their culinary specialties thereby allowing a larger palate to demonstrate your talents. One way to enhance continuity is to take your favorite images, place them on a table, and group them as though they were the key frames of a storyboard. If you have a large number of images, you might place them on the floor and then get up on a ladder and begin to sort them into a story form. You may end up with one large story, or you may develop several stories and each of those stories may indicate that you need more than one book to show to different clients. In any event it is the gestalt that surfaces from the multitude of images that gives foundation to your point of view and then provides a pacing for your photos.

As in any story development, your body of work should have a beginning, middle, and an end. That is to say it is best if your first image makes a statement of how the book is going to progress. It should be impactful and set the tone for things to come. Then, as you turn the pages each image must flow to the next with a powerful and memorable image. I am often asked how many images should be in a portfolio and the answer is as many images as it takes to tell your story. I have seen books with fifty images that bored me to tears. Conversely I once saw a portfolio with five images that were so striking, so breathtaking, so intricately executed, that we talked for an hour. There is no magic number. If anything it is helpful to keep in mind that you would want to put together a body of work that would hold the viewers attention for the length of an introductory meeting. Have something interesting prepared to say about each image, but be prepared to say nothing and let the viewer appreciate the work on its own merit if that is their viewing style.

I once helped a young photographer who photographed people/lifestyle assemble her portfolio. She was having a hard time keeping the focus of the work, which seemed to wander from image to image. Then one day we reconfigured the work moving each piece to give it a pulse. At one point she moved one piece from the middle to the beginning, swapped it with another, and all of a sudden she let out a gasp. By merely editing the order of the photos she noticed that her exterior images in the beginning were shot in morning light, the images in the middle were illuminated from above as though midday, and the remaining photos were shot late in the afternoon and then moved indoors. In other words her object of continuity was achieved by a subtle approach to her lighting and it all came together. Continuity can come from subject, or technique, or perspective or any number of things, but it must provide a psychological foundation for the images to flow.

3. Professionalism

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Next is the topic of Professionalism. By this I mean that the book/portfolio itself must convey that you care about your work on a professional level. There should not be any stray pencil marks, scratched or buckled acetate sleeves, no pieces of tape or dust. The work should be in the order you intended, and you must be ready to present the second you walk in the door. The person you are presenting your work to must have the feeling that you care about your work and anything that would tell her differently will distract her from the seriousness of the work. Keep in mind that the person who hires you is taking a chance that you are not going to make him look like a fool to his boss. Little things can sour a presentation (remember first impressions) and you do not want to do anything to sabotage your meeting.

This includes the way you present yourself. Dress appropriately, use proper etiquette, and be assertive but not aggressive. When a viewer challenges you on why you shot an image a certain way answer honestly and concisely. It is appropriate to defend your work, but do not become defensive. Most of the time people just want to understand your work; they are not trying to pick a fight or question your artistry, or steal a concept. I have had a few awkward moments while showing the portfolio but they were usually quelled with a non-committal, “That’s an interesting observation. Let me think about it and get back to you.” Just remember that you are there to present your work in the best light and to leave the best impression of your work. One more thing, in a meeting never ask, “So what do you do here?” It is imperative to do the required research prior to the meeting to know which accounts the company services and what they spend their time doing. Be enthusiastic, be knowledgeable, and most of all be yourself.

4. Simple Message

The next element relates directly back to your POV. It is that the essence of your portfolio must be able to be summarized into a Simple Message. You should be able to encapsulate the spirit of your work in a sentence. Again this is not meant to pigeon-hole you, but rather it is designed for you to be remembered. The reality is that Art Buyers, Art Directors and Photo Editors see a multitude of portfolios and you need something for them to remember your work by. This is the equivalent of the “take away” that lecturers provide at the end of their presentations. What is it you want the viewer to take away from your meeting? Be prepared to verbalize that concept and have it as an essential part of your branding.

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I have had the opportunity to work recently with a wonderful photographer who is extremely versatile. His name is Mark Harmel, and the fact that he is so versatile could be seen as an asset or a liability depending on how his portfolio is structured. As you can see from the images that are included with this article, he is equally adept at taking captivating images of people, landscapes and nature, as well as people at work whether in a local medical lab or in a distant land. He could have a portfolio with all of these images mixed together, or he could separate them out and make one, two, or even three individual portfolios. After analyzing the spirit of his work, one concept emerged that was unifying and undeniable, and that was his work lends itself nicely to a simple phrase: “things pertaining to a healthy lifestyle.” By separating himself from the usual definitions of “people photographer” or “travel photographer” and branding himself, as “the healthy lifestyle photographer,” he gives his prospective clients something they can easily remember him by, and still allow himself enough latitude so he can be appreciated on many different levels. By so doing he can reach out to a larger number of assignment opportunities simply by creating his own memorable category. A healthy lifestyle photographer can shoot annual reports for design firms for the medical/pharmaceutical industries, and can also be considered by advertising agencies for travel, insurance, housing, financial, and a wide range of products and services. Additionally, this new definition allows him to target his market in a more efficient manner. According to Mark, “By defining and organizing my work around an industry I can still be diverse and still speak to my client’s needs. I then target to the audience that I am showing the portfolio. It also helps me get in the door to get appointments.”
His redefinition of what he loves to shoot broadens his opportunities and reinforces the next element allowing him to stand out from the rest of the marketplace.

5. Uniqueness

The marketplace is based on the economic model of supply and demand. The construct that the smaller the supply the higher the demand applies to the field of photography as it does to any other industry. Therefore it is to your advantage to make your work as unique as possible. The fewer people that do the type of work that you do, the less competition you will have to deal with. If you are fortunate enough to execute a very unique brand of photography you will be able to demand higher fees. Also, it is easier to enter the marketplace when your skills and talents are unique. Once you become a member of a special segment of the market then you will be asked to do more diverse work and you can demonstrate your range of abilities. It used to be imperative to have a portfolio that showed you could do it all. Nowadays it seems the people who purchase art are looking for someone who can answer the hot button issue that is on their desk. Once they find the right person for that job and that person executes the job to their satisfaction, they will send that person on more diverse assignments because they can be trusted.

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Also, I have encountered another promising phenomenon in the past few years. I have talked with an increasing number of Art Directors and Art Buyers who are asking photographers when they show their portfolios (especially when meeting them for the first time) to show their personal work first. Imagine that. These progressive purchasers of art are interested in the stuff that is usually reserved for the back of the book and only shown as an afterthought. What this tells me is that they are interested in seeing something new, something worth noticing, and they are not settling for the usual portfolio showing. Be prepared to show your experimental work and to share the enthusiasm.

6. Relevance to the Audience

It should be noted that these six elements of an effective presentation are not in order of importance. Of course POV leads the way because without it your boat is without a rudder. But your portfolio must be relevant to the audience to whom you are showing it. That presumes that you have taken the time to do your homework and know what they are all about. Never show a book that doesn’t have some reason to be shown. If the Magazine/Agency/Client Director works on shoe accounts and shoe accounts only they probably will not have any need to spend their time looking at a car/sheet metal portfolio. I know this sounds like common sense, but, as a good friend once said, “The least common thing is common sense.” Not only should you know what your prospective client does, but you should familiarize yourself with the industry. When talking with them know the appropriate vocabulary. Whenever possible do some search engine research or read their latest annual report so you can be knowledgeable about their concerns and their competition, and show them how your photography will benefit them. Always approach any presentation from the standpoint that you understand what will benefit the audience and how you can address that concern. Too many times people deliver presentations that talk about themselves and don’t relate to the challenges the potential client has to deal with.

Mark Your Own Progress

As an activity, you could make a graph with a grading system on the “y” axis from one (low) to five (high). On the “x” axis you would place The Six Elements of an Effective Presentation: Point of View, Continuity, Professionalism, Simple Message, Uniqueness, and Relevance to the Audience. Then you may use that graph to score how effective your presentation is.

I developed this method to perform portfolio (and other presentation) reviews, and it is extremely helpful. I presently teach a class titled, “Presentation and Career Preparation” at the Art Center College of Design, and I use this method to grade presentations and portfolios and to give feedback to my students on how they can improve. Using the graph allows me to show the students, and the photographers with whom I consult, where their portfolios need extra emphasis and how to make that happen. For example if I help someone strengthen his POV then it is easier to help them create a flow, or pulse to their presentation. That pulse will help to make the presentation more professional and will allow the message to be more clearly stated. In turn the clarity of the message will highlight the uniqueness of the book. And if those elements are all in sync it will be easier to see how that person’s work would apply to their marketing needs. It is a simple tool but one that takes some of the subjectivity out of the equation. It is more palatable to an artist to be able to point to an objective criterion and help that artist tell a more comprehensive story about his work.

Conclusion

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The point of this article to help you communicate more effectively and I hope this explanation of The Six Elements of a Effective Presentation has been as useful for you as it has been for me. Once you have managed to get in the door you have a relatively short time to have your work impress a potential client. You have to convey that you are a team player with original ideas who can take their creative input and translate it into something magnificent that will increase sales, or give more visibility to their product or service, or be a call to action to their constituents. But none of that comes to pass unless you first get their attention and set before them an effective presentation.

Now, once you have put together a working portfolio who are right people to show it to, and how do you keep them current so they will remember to call you? That is the subject of the next installment of this series which will focus on Client Contact.

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Other Articles by Tony Luna

Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna has been an Instructor at the Art Center College of Design since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution. Tony will be presenting a lecture titled “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper.

Text ©2008 Tony Luna.

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    • Mr. Luna, Thank you for another great article.
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    • Thanks Mr. Luna, very interesting article and I'm looking forward to the next!
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    • Thanks for a most interesting article. Most things in it are not rocket science, but all put together gives me the drive and the logic to put together a better portfolio. looking forward to the next article.
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    • This is what I've been looking for - how to make a good and impressive portfolio. Thank you for you great advice, once again.
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    • Extremely worthwhile series of articles. Thanks, Mr. Luna. I'm on my 3rd time through re-reading them.
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