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So tell me...what do you do?

06-19-2013

No doubt you’ve heard this question a lot, and you’ll probably hear it many more times. The problem? Most of us don’t know how to answer it very well.

Imagine the situation…you’re at a casual gathering with lots of people you don’t know. You end up standing next to someone and, after a few awkward moments, you start a conversation. Once you get past the pleasantries and the explanation of how you know the host, the “what do you do” question is bound to come up.

If you give the typical reply, you probably get the typical response – “Oh, nice,” at best, and at worst a blank stare.

In that situation, many of us fall back on tips we read about personal branding. Concepts like elevator pitch, value proposition, and unique selling proposition float through our minds, often without a true understanding of what these words represent or how to apply them to our world.

So how can you prepare for the “what do you do” question?

Answer the question!
John McEnroe famously, or infamously, shouted those words, and more, at a tennis official many years ago, and we should take his advice when it comes to talking about our work.

Answering the “what do you do” question well, or even re-framing it to share some more information, gives the other person a better sense of who you are and what you do.  And you have the chance for a better conversation when you focus your response on them. Your goal is to start a dialogue.

So where do you begin?

What do you do?
Let’s start with the basic question. Our response to “what do you do” gets most of us off to a rough start because, when taken at face value, it offers you the least impact. Why? The answer focuses mostly on your title and only marginally offers insight into what you really do and how that might help other people.

When you say, “I’m a marketing manager,” or, “I’m a human resources generalist,” the listener often struggles to connect with that information. That kind of response adds little sense of curiosity to the discussion and can end the conversation.

Of course, sometimes you only need to explain a little bit to get the conversation started and then a simple job title works fine. Describe what you do as specifically as you can. Just remember, you’re better off giving an answer that’s more relevant to the other person.

How do you help?
The answer to this question generally leads to a deeper conversation. When people ask what you do, they often want to know more – so explain how you help others. It takes your first answer a step further.

This might be tricky though. You could help people in a variety of different ways. How do you fully explain that?

You don’t.

A strong answer starts a conversation, it doesn’t seal the deal. So avoid reciting a laundry list of skills. Instead, give the other person enough to get the gist of what you do without overwhelming them with information.

If you say, “As an advertising account executive, I’m the link between the agency and the client, and I make sure both of them are on the same page,” you give your listener some detail to continue the conversation.

You know you’re on the right track if the other person asks, “How do you do that?

What makes you different or unique?
Later, you may need to separate yourself from others who do what you do. If you do any sort of business development work, this is a must. But even if your job has an internal focus, you should think about what makes you or your team or your firm different.

In either case, this answer can be difficult. Overcome that challenge. Really think…what do you do better than anyone else? What philosophy or mission guides everything you do? Once you gather some thoughts about these questions, explaining what makes you unique becomes much easier.

A simple example is the department store Nordstrom. They carved out a position as a leader in retail customer service. Even though others retailers care about it, Nordstrom used the concept as a guiding principle to set it apart from the field.

Ask yourself – what sets you apart?

Practice, practice, practice.
These answers become your personal marketing messages. Take the time to craft messages that are truly yours. Own the words so they roll off your tongue naturally. And use these guidelines as you develop your message:

  • Brief – keep it to one or two sentences
  • Simple – use plain language, avoid jargon
  • Sticky – make it memorable and repeatable

Sound like yourself and focus on them – and you have the beginnings of a genuine conversation.

We want to help you develop your personal marketing messages, so head over to our blog by clicking here. There, you will see some examples, receive some direction, and get a little inspiration. 

All the best,

Sean Romanoff – Exec|Comm Consultant

Exec|Comm
What’s your message to the world?

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