Answering, ‘So, What Do You Do?’

This is my inaugural column for Forbes.com, where I’ll share thoughts on how you can communicate more effectively. Therefore, by way of introduction, I thought you might find it helpful to learn a different approach to introducing yourself to others. In business, we’re always meeting new people – on sales calls, at conferences, in social settings. After the basic chit-chat at the start of any introduction, comes the key question, “So, what do you do?”

Most people respond to that question with what’s printed on their business card. “I’m the Chief Talent Officer at Acme Industries,” or “I’m a Managing Director at Megabank.” Starting with your job title can be presumptuous. It tells the other person that you assume she knows about Acme, or that he knows what it means to be a Managing Director at a bank. You could be starting the conversation by confusing the other person or making them feel uninformed. More importantly, however, it communicates to the other person that you view yourself in terms of a status you’ve achieved. We should be proud of our professional accomplishments, but introducing ourselves in terms of our status can make us appear self-important or pompous.

Instead, try to introduce yourself not in terms of your status, but in terms of how your role impacts the end beneficiary of your job – your clients, your audience or your company. I never introduce myself by saying, “I’m the Managing Partner of Exec|Comm.” No one knows what Exec|Comm is, and saying I’m the MP makes me sound pretentious. Instead, I say, “I help people communicate better.” It opens the door to a conversation.

When you’re introducing yourself, you want a simple statement of how you impact others, just enough to make them want to hear the next sentence.

Our human nature is to be all wrapped up in ourselves – our needs, our goals and our issues. You’ll distinguish yourself from other professionals if you focus less on yourself and more on the other person.

Talking about yourself in terms of your impact rather than your status makes you intrinsically more attractive to other people. Of course, your simple statement about yourself should be sufficiently clear.

I was once working with a group of partners at a global law firm helping them hone their messages when giving presentations. Most of the partners in the room introduced themselves by sharing their titles. “I’m an insurance attorney.” That line doesn’t start conversations; it ends them. (I speak from experience. I practiced insurance law for seven years.) One partner in the group was a superb marketer. When I asked him what he does, he replied, “I marry money to movies.” What a great line. He found funding for art projects. I needed to know the next line. I wanted to learn more. That’s what you want an introduction to accomplish: the listener wanting to learn more.

One of his colleagues quickly caught on, but missed the mark slightly. He said, “I make my clients’ problems go away.” Without a small dose of context, he sounded like a hit man for the mob. Since he was a tax attorney, we massaged his message into, “I help companies return the most value to their shareholders.” His message became succinct and engaging, and positioned him as focused on the needs of his client. That’s about as good as it gets.

Think about the world around you. How is it better off because of what you do?

You’re not a “financial planner.” You “help people make sure they can retire in comfort.”

You’re not the “Assistant Art Director” at a travel magazine. You “help people figure out their next vacation.”

You’re not the “Operations Manager for Acme Industries.” You “help employees stay safe on the job.”

The more closely you can tie your statement of who you are and how you add value to the person standing in front of you, the easier it is to make them interested in what you do. Let’s say I’m a real estate lawyer and I meet someone at a conference in St. Louis.

Them – “So, what do you do?”

Me – “Did you see that construction going up across the street from the hotel? I make sure that when projects like that get started, the builder has the money to finish.”

Them – “You’re working on the new building?”

Me – “No. Not that one, but lots of others. I help negotiation construction loans for builders. What do you do?”

Don’t forget that people are more interested in talking about themselves than in listening to you. After a few sentences about you, flip the conversation back to the other person. It not only makes you a better conversationalist, it helps you understand how to tailor the rest of the conversation. The more you learn about the other person, the easier it is for you to craft a message about yourself that resonates with that person. If someone asks me what I do for a living, and I know that person is a lawyer, I say, “I help lawyers communicate better.” If I know the person is an accountant, guess what I do for a living. I help accountants communicate better. If you make your message less about yourself and more about the other person, you’ll be a more effective communicator.

For those of you launching your career, or with kids about to do so, I’ll share some insights next week about how to help young people position themselves better during interviews.

Until then, reflect further about yourself. “So, what do you do?”

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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