As Americans, we tend to equate what we do with who we are. It is usually one of the first follow up questions after an initial introduction. But it can be a dreaded question for many of us.
It typically goes a bit like this: someone asks, “What do you do?” You have an inward battle on how much talking you want to do, so you simply respond with your job title, “I’m an analyst.”
Wow. That was insightful. You can see the confusion in their eyes – the “what does that really mean” questioning look but uncertainty that they even want to ask for more information. So, you may try to list out some of your tasks or give examples of clients – all while making sure you’re keeping things unclassified. You can tell they still don’t get you, so you make the best choice possible and start to talk about the weather instead. Networking fail.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be that awkward or uncomfortable. The key to answering the “What do you do? question is to redefine the typical answer. Don’t just answer with your job title. Very few jobs titles truly convey what you do. Do yourself justice and reframe how you answer this question.
If you’re unsure how to overhaul the standard answers for the “what do you do” question, here are four different approaches:
Explain how you help others.
Let people understand your value to the job or customers. What difference are you making in the world? You are not just a title or a sum of work responsibilities. You are actually making accomplishments in your job, so share those when someone asks what you do.
Relate your answer to your audience.
You can talk about yourself, but if you know any information about your audience, relate your answer to them in ways they can understand or find interest. If you don’t know much about the people you’re speaking with, you can ask a few questions so that you can tailor your answer and find connections with them.
Talk about your professional journey.
This option takes a bit of openness and vulnerability, but it can be an engaging way to explain what you do. It’s much less of a conversation killer than the answer of “analyst” or “I’m unemployed.” You can provide a quick overview in a few minutes without being boring. And you might find that your listener’s experience lines up at different points in the conversation.
Tell a (unclassified) job story.
Stories can give your listener some context and create an accurate picture for them. It’s easy to judge others based on job titles, but providing your listener with a narrative paints a better picture for them.
Your job title doesn’t actually answer the question “What do you do?” So, determine what method of answering best fits with your personality or social situation, and practice your answers. People are really looking to find a connection with you when they ask the question, so don’t kill the conversation by simply answering with your vague job title. And don’t forget to ask them the question once you’ve answered it.