6 Essentials for a Persuasive Freelance Portfolio

Your portfolio will make or break you. It’s usually the first thing a client will look at and it’s the main thing they’ll use to decide whether to hire you or not. So, nailing it is critical.

But, there’s a lot of variables:

  • What all should I put in it?
  • How many portfolio items should I have?
  • How do I make it persuasive so clients hire me?

So, that’s what I’m going to tackle in this article. I’m going to show you the six essentials your freelance portfolio must have if you want to get hired and paid more for your services. Those six essentials are:

So, if you’re ready, let’s dive in:

If you’re new to freelancing and are unsure of the next steps once you get your portfolio built, I lay it all out for you in my Beginner’s Guide to Freelance class. You can learn how to get free access to the class HERE.

Essential #1: Visual Appeal

The first essential is visual appeal. Consider these stats:

  • When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65% of the information three days later.
  • Eye-tracking studies show internet readers pay close attention to information-carrying images. In fact, when the images are relevant, readers spend more time looking at the images than they do reading text on the page.
  • People following directions with text and illustrations do 323% better than people following directions without illustrations.
  • Tweets with images receive 150% more retweets than tweets without images.

Now, it may not come as a huge surprise that adding images makes things perform better. But, I’m always baffled by freelancer profiles. A lot of freelancers don’t properly prioritize visual appeal. Your portfolio HAS to look good. Even if, you’re in an industry that lacks it (writers, back-end development, etc).

One way to accomplish that, of course, is to make sure you always build nice-looking things. If you’re in a visual industry (photography, graphic design, etc) and you’re good at what you do, this should be the easiest part of you.

But, if you’re not, it can be a bit harder. One trick I’ve learned is using “graphical representations” instead of screenshots. Take this graphic for Infusionsoft, for example:

This is obviously not what the actual interface looks like. But, it gives the impression that it is. And, it communicates the point. It injects visual appeal where there might not be any.

So, if you’re a writer, you probably already have to include images with the content you write. Use those to represent your articles. If you’re a back-end developer, use screenshots of the front-end interface even if you didn’t necessarily build that part.

Or, create a graphical representation of what your code in that proejct does. The point is… get creative with your portfolio. Don’t tie yourself to having to just take screenshots.

But, PRIORITIZE visual appeal.

Essential #2: Only Show Your Best Stuff

Volume is mostly irrelevant. Once you get beyond 5-7 items in your portfolio, it matters very little. The majority of clients simply aren’t going to click on that many projects and analyze them with any depth.

What’s more important is ensuring that the few items they DO click on are your best work. And, you never now which ones they’re going to look at.

So, only ever include your best work in your portfolio. You could be hurting yourself at not know it.

Essential #3: The Project Story

I talk about Project Stories in this video:

But, almost nobody does this. Even some of the best freelancers out there. In fact, I’ve come across freelance websites that are spending 1000s of dollars on Google Ads to promote their products and services and they have a portfolio where each item isn’t even clickable.

Like this one:

It’s all just small static images and that’s it. And, most of the images look like stock photos. No way I’m hiring that company. But, the Project Story is about context. This is where we do our persuading. So, let me give you an example.

When I built the membership site for Inc. Magazine, the project lead, Lewis, had been trying to get the site built for nearly two years. He’d spent a ton hiring other developers and still didn’t even have a beta for his site.

To be fair, his project was complicated.

He wanted a location-based membership and he was building it in WordPress. So, he wanted members from different location-based chapters to see different content when they logged into the site.

And, he wanted it to be just a click or two on his end to make it happen.

Definitely not native to WordPress and not something that was simple.

But, I dug into it and wrote a couple algorithms to make the location-switching simple. A few page templates to display content based on location. A couple custom widgets to display member information differently for different locations.

And, made it a single click on his end to mark the content. And, I had his beta site up in less than a month. Needless to say, he was ecstatic. In fact, he’s not a guy to offer praise very easily or effusively, but here’s what he said:

“Your work and wisdom on this project has been tremendous.”

So, imagine you’re a client thinking about hiring me. And, you read that story on my portfolio page. You see the screenshots. The testimonial from Lewis. Do you think you’d be convinced to hire me?

What if you opened another portfolio item and read an equally compelling story.

And another.

And another.

How many would it take before you said:

“Damn. I’m hiring this guy!”

Now, compare that to what you see from most portfolios. Often, they’re just project images. A lot of freelancers don’t even give a description. If they do, it’s usually a paragraph or two listing features or something boring.

People buy on emotion.

Stories create emotion.

So, if you want to compete with the best of the best, take this extra step.

Essential #4: Testimonials

Here’s an example from one of the top freelance WordPress developers, Bill Erickson:

A bit of an aside, but…

One thing you can do to get really clear on what you need to do to persuade a client to hire you is… imagine the most skeptical person you know. You know the one. Every time you say anything, they always have some rebuttal or question.

They grill you on every little detail and doubt everything you say. Imagine THAT is your client. Because, if they’re spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on you… they ARE going to be skeptical like that.

So, it’s one thing for YOU to tell your Project Story. It’s great you have a bunch of super famous clients. And yeah, your stuff looks good. But, what would that skeptical friend say?

“Yeah, but were all those clients actually happy with your work?”

“What do THEY have to say?”

So, it’s important to get and display a client testimonial for every project in your portfolio. Otherwise, you’re leaving a crack where a skeptical client can wiggle their way out.

Don’t let ’em!

This kind of thing goes a long way toward getting you hired.

And, I’ll just tell you based on my 15 years as a freelancer — you couple visual appeal, with a compelling project story and good client testimonial… you’re going to have NO problem getting work.

Essential #5: Relevant Features

This is a quick one, but this is where you can be a little strategic. If you’re building your service packages the way I teach (article on that HERE), then think about all the features for each tier of service.

First, some of those features will be more relevant to certain clients versus others. If you’ve done a good job of identifying your freelance niche (another article on that HERE), those features will be obvious to you.

Second, when you work with clients, some of the features for each project will be more prominent and/or important. You want to match those two things up. That is, highlight features of a project in your portfolio that you KNOW potential new clients will be drawn to.

So, for each item in your portfolio, you want to list the top 3-4 features that were prominent in that project. That way, when a new client looks at your portfolio, one or two of those features might catch their eye and be the thing that pushes them over the top.

Here’s one example. These are individual features of a project, again, from Bill Erickson’s portfolio. And, these change for each item in his portfolio.

Another example… when I did the Inc. Magazine project, one of the prominent features was the “location-based content switching”. It’s not something baked into WordPress and it was pretty involved, so listed it.

If a potential client that comes along that has location-based chapters in their membership, that’s a feature that could potentially stick out to them. And, be the thing that gets me the job.

The big thing is you do NOT want to list every feature on every portfolio item. A client will look at one or two and realize that’s what you’re doing and stop looking at it. But, if every project has something a little different and unique, they’ll pay attention.

And, that could be the thing that gets you hired.

Essential #6: Call to Action

Here’s an example from a logo designer I found on Google:

The #1 thing that got pounded into my head when I did face-to-face sales was “asking for the sale”. Most people, whent they first start in sales, aren’t uncomfortable asking another person directly if they want to buy something.

Especially, after you just spent the last 20 minutes convincing them to do so.

I remember the company I worked for had done a research study on this in their stores. The found that when a salesperson didn’t ask for the sale, that sale was lost 90+% of the time.

I can’t remember the exact number when they DID ask for the sale, but it was dramatically lower. Bottom line: if you want to make a sale, ask for it. Or, in our case as freelancers:

If you want to get hired, ask them to hire you.

Sounds simple enough, but a lot of portfolios don’t do it. And, it can be as simple as including a sentences that says: “Ready to hire me? Click the button below to get started.” And then included the button and link it to your quote request form or however clients hire you.

What If I Have No Experience?

The most common question I get about portfolios is:

“What if I’m just starting out and have nothing to put in a portfolio?”

I’m gonna throw a Gary Vee-ism at you: 1 > 0. Here’s a video on it if you’re not familiar with Gary:

Something is better than nothing. Now, that’s to a point. If your “1” is complete garbage, it’s not going to help you. If that’s the case (and be ruthless with yourself) you’d be better off working on your craft than worrying about a portfolio.

But, if you’re past that point and know you can do good work… nothing says your portfolio has to be filled with work you did for clients. Client projects are better. And, you eventually want to have those in your portfolio.

But, if you just don’t have anything, yet…

Create something to put in there. If you’re a web developer, build something… for nobody. Graphic designers… make a logo for nobody. If you walk dogs, ask a friend if you can walk their dog in exchange for a testimonial.

You need some way to show off your talent.

For example, this is one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous drawings:

Do you know what it is?

It’s called the Vitruvian Man (WikiPedia article).

It’s not a commissioned work. It was something he drew in his notebook detailing the ideal proportions of a man. He did it for his own research, but also to show to potential patrons. Realism was huge at the time.

And so, he was showing that he could create the most realistic/ideal human form in a painting. It was a part of his “portfolio”. It’s now kept in a museum in Venice, Italy and one of the first things people think of when Da Vinci comes up.

If I were starting from scratch, today. The very first thing I would do is go build 10 membership sites for absolutely nobody. I’d take screenshots and put them in my portfolio. No, I won’t have the client testimonial or as compelling of a Project Story.

But, I’d have something.

And, something is better than nothing.


So, there you go. Those are the six essentials of a persuasive freelance portfolio. I have yet to see a freelance portfolio that does all six well. So, if you do… I’m just telling you, you’re going to be way ahead of your competition. That said, if you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line in the comments. Also, if you’d like more direct access to me, I have a Q&A-style class on Skillshare where I take your questions and answer them in a full video in the class. You can learn more about that and how to get free access to the class at https://letstalkfreelance.com

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John Morris


I’m a 15-year veteran of freelance web development. I’ve worked with bestselling authors and average Joe’s next door. These days, I focus on helping other freelancers build their freelance business and their lifestyles.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. jer

    Sir john I am not a professional coder I just understand the basic html and css but I do have understanding in wordpress.

    I am working on a client membership website using Ultimate membership pro plug in, the plug in is great but you can’t really customize overall.

    Please give me an advice or a solution for this one, or a course for a membership website

    1. John Morris

      This is a tough one. First, I’ve never used that plugin, so I can’t tell you much about it. Second, there’s not a ton of “how to build a membership site” stuff out there.

      That said, there is this post I wrote for a client of mine, but it’s with a different piece of membership software (WishList Member). Still, I think a lot of it would be helpful for you: https://member.wishlistproducts.com/build-membership-site-wordpress/

  2. Chris Misterek

    Love the idea of a project story. I think at the end of the day, clients are more likely to hire you because they can “see” their site in your portfolio somewhere. Telling a story about a project can help them bridge the gap between the visual differences they might see in the sites you’ve made and how the project as a whole was similar to their scenario. Thanks for that!

  3. Uchenna Inno. Achonu

    Good job, John. Your posts are down-to-earth. I enjoyed reading them. Your wealth of knowledge is fully loaded on a platter for newbies like me. I would appreciate it if you could give me a guide in this direction: am a graphic designer who wants to diversify to freelance proofreading on Upwork. Need a guide on how to present my profile like a pro and own a blog.

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