A seemingly harmless question, it is also one that can be incredibly difficult to answer. We live in a culture where ‘what we do’ essentially defines ‘who we are’. If you’re not comfortable with your current role, or if you’re not working at the moment for whatever reason, it can sometimes make even the most confident people crumble.
You may have heard people talking about ‘elevator pitches’. It’s basically jargon for being prepared with a response when someone asks you: ‘what do you do?’ or ‘tell me about yourself’. If you’re thinking about changing your career, or returning to work after a break, defining your own narrative is really important. What’s your background? What are you doing at the moment? What are you hoping to do next? How can someone help you get a bit closer to achieving your goal? If you can articulate yourself clearly, then the people you speak to will get a real sense of what you’re looking for. They’ll be far more likely to be able to help you, or be confident to introduce you to others who can. Whether you are talking to someone about a career change or a new business idea, your ‘pitch’ is a great opportunity to promote what you are doing, build your brand and engage with someone who may become a client or ambassador for you in the future.
‘So, what do you do?’
Consider the difference between this response:
‘Oh, you know, not much at the moment. Same old same old. Got a few ideas, but still thinking….’
(Doesn’t really inspire someone to find out more about you…)
‘Well it’s all quite exciting at the moment – I left Peabody Brown a couple of months ago and I’m taking some time to research a business idea I’ve had. I’m hoping to set up my own design consultancy. Actually, I was wondering if you were still in touch with James Harrison – I’ve not seen him for a while, and I was hoping to have a chat with him about finding an office space to rent…’
‘Well my background is in agency PR, but I’ve just finished a journalism programme and I’m starting to take on some freelance writing work [while I’m at home with the kids]. I’ve done a few interesting pieces of work promoting local businesses. My longer-term plan is to work in-house for a not-for-profit organisation, so it’s great to be keeping my skills up to date in the meantime. If you hear of anyone that is looking for a bit of extra PR support, do please give them my number!’
The second two examples both give the impression of someone who is motivated and focused. If you come across as being apologetic, or lacking in clarity, people are going to struggle to think of further questions to ask you or offer support – not least because they won’t have a clue how they could help you!
If you’re not sure what to say when someone asks you what you do, think about the following:
Start off with a little bit about your background – what have you done most recently? Focus either on the specific organisation if the person you are talking to will have heard of it, or speak more broadly about the industry if not.
Incorporate some brief details of what you are doing at the moment, or what you are hoping to do in the future. If you are making a big change in career, you should include a well thought out reason for why you are doing so.
If you’ve had a bad experience, for example if you’ve been made redundant or let go, don’t come across as being bitter. Try to put as positive a spin on it as possible and focus on future directions.
Is there anything that the person you are talking to might be able to help you with? People love to share experiences, or feel that they are in a position to support others. Try to be specific without being too pushy. Test the water with generalities – maybe discuss something that you have in common. If you are looking to set up independently and you know the person that you are talking to has done the same, you can talk about some of the challenges you’re facing, or what you are particularly enjoying. When you get a feel for their level of interest, you can take the discussion to the next stage – could they introduce you to someone that may be able to help you?
Develop different narratives for different audiences. You are likely to emphasise different aspects of your story to old work colleagues, university friends, or professional peers at a networking event.
Practice what you plan to say. Begin by running it by close friends and family members and use their feedback to improve your story. Your initial ‘pitch’ really shouldn’t be any longer than 30 seconds.
Think about how you feel each time you tell your story. Are you excited by it? Can you sense any incongruities? Does it flow? If you’re not comfortable with what you’re saying, maybe you need to take some time to think it through in more detail. Is it really what you want to do?
If you speak to someone who is in a position to help you out, do make sure that you thank them and keep them posted with how your situation develops. People really appreciate this, and will be far more likely to support you in the future, or recommend you to others.
Keep business cards on you at all times – don’t hand them out to all and sundry, but if someone that you speak to shows a genuine interest in what you are doing, then do have one ready to share. Alternatively, be ready to connect with a LinkedIn invitation where appropriate.
Still not sure what to say when someone asks you what you do? It might be that you need to think through your career goals in a bit more depth. I’m always happy to help!