“And what do you do?”

what do you do best answer

We’re often told that we need a short pitch that introduces who we are and what we do, for when we’re attending networking events and, literally, when we meet someone important in the lift (hence, “elevator pitch”) and want to get our message across quickly and effectively. I’ve been working with a number of clients on this recently, and, rather embarrassingly, I’ve been struggling with it myself.

At the recent Travel Storytelling Festival in Brussels, I was introduced as a “nomadic coach” – which is at least partly true, but feels very strange and a little uncomfortable. Isn’t that too fluffy? Will people think I’m a hippy? Is anyone going to take me seriously in the business world now?

The issue of what exactly it is that we do is an important one, all the more so because our identities are so tied up in our jobs these days.

The question, “What do you do?” is effectively the same as “Who are you?”

In giving a simple label that everyone understands – doctor, engineer, advertising executive, graphic designer, even entrepreneur – you immediately paint a picture of who you are as a person, and what kind of world you operate in. That label conjures up all sorts of values and expectations, and allows your audience to quickly understand where you fit into their world of familiar things. Finding that label is especially difficult when you’re self-employed and have a portfolio career.

The difficulty is that everyone will have different preconceptions and definitions and so whatever you say is going to be interpreted in different ways by different people.

You’re also likely to get a different response in different situations.

If I say I work in marketing, people in the business world – and beyond – will immediately have some idea of the kind of work I do. Everyone knows a little about advertising, even if only from their own experience as a consumer. If I mention the luxury brands I’ve worked on, some people might be impressed, or at least curious. In other circles, however, the response might be one of anger at the use of animal testing or exotic materials in luxury products, or the environmental impact of all the plastic that consumer goods companies put out in the world.

On the other hand, if I say I’m a coach, some people will get it right away, having had their own powerful experience with a personal or business coach, while others will have never come into contact with coaching as a profession and will maybe think of sports coaching or counselling.

You can’t control the effect your words will have on other people, so it’s more important to come up with an answer that you feel comfortable with, that you can own and that feels authentic to who you are and what it is that you do.

The most accurate and still succinct answer I can give at the moment is probably that I’m “a personal coach and business consultant”, covering the two main elements of my work. While that lacks any real nuance, it does the job of telling people the core of what I do.

Of course, most people doing the asking probably don’t really care about the answer. For them, a brief “I work in marketing”, “I’m a writer”, or “I’m self-employed” is probably sufficient.

If they do care, and are genuinely interested, they’re likely to ask follow-up questions:

“Oh, what kind of marketing do you do?”

“What have you written recently?”

“What kind of business do you have?”

And then you can explain in as much detail as they can bear.

If you can’t find a label that you feel sums up the most important bits, and you do want to go a bit deeper, I’ve found a formula for a more interesting way of introducing ourselves.

It consists of three parts:

  • WHAT do you do?
  • For WHOM?

This gives you:

“I do X for people who Y so that they can Z.”

It’s a powerful formula, I think, for summarising your work on your LinkedIn profile (see my post on optimising your LinkedIn profile), on your website, or at formal networking events. However, for most of us it still feels quite unnatural when we’re saying it out loud in everyday conversations:

“I coach ‘high-achiever’ professionals, helping them to overcome their fears and limiting beliefs in order to find a more purpose-driven career path and live their most fulfilled lives.”

Riiiight. And I ride unicorns over rainbows so that it rains glitter over the universe.

No? Just me?

Part of it, clearly, is just getting over ourselves and our own preconceptions. When we go through a significant career transition, it can be hard to let go of the prestige that came with our previous work: an impressive job title that demonstrates how important we are, a big-name company brand that gives us credibility, a professional network that admires us for our achievements.

The reason why we’ve made that very transition, however, is that we’ve recognised that those prestigious embellishments are not what’s most important to us. We have other values that are more meaningful to us personally: creative expression, time with our family, an opportunity to travel the world… It’s worth reminding ourselves of that before we open our mouths to try to justify our decisions.

Communicating clearly what it is that we do also assumes that we’re clear about what we do! What’s your niche? What type of clients do you work with? Why do you do what you do? If you’re struggling with introducing yourself in a succinct way, maybe you need to go back and review your business strategy, or your career goals, to get clear on these fundamental questions.

So next time you’re faced with that dreaded question, “And what do you do?”, take a deep breath, look into the eyes of the person in front of you, and, whatever it is you’ve decided to say, make sure that you say it with conviction. Chances are they’ll just nod distractedly and forget all about you in a moment; or, if you’re lucky and if you’ve crafted an effective message that really communicates who you help and how, then maybe you’ll find that your ideal client is standing right in front of you.

Do you have a formula for how you introduce yourself at networking events? Have you heard someone else introduce themselves in a really interesting way? Please share so we can steal, I mean, learn from each other!


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