Networking Tips

How to answer ‘What do you do?’

What do you do? The question often feels a bit uncomfortable, yet it is the inevitable, most commonly question asked. How do you best respond with a compelling answer?

Let me start with an odd observation: English is not my first language, but I see two verbs in that line: ‘do’ and ‘do’. Yet most people answer this question in a relatively static way:

‘I work for a bank.’

‘I am an engineer.’

Etc. There is nothing wrong with that type of answer, but nothing makes it memorable either. There are hundreds or even thousands of bankers and engineers in the city. Identifying as just one of them does not make you stand-out.

How do you make your answer to what do you do compelling?

Often, the job description is not why people are interested in learning more about you. The reason people connect with you is not so much for the title on your business card; it is the difference you make in this world – however big or small that may be doesn’t matter yet that much; it matters how well it is articulated.

Think about it from three angles:

1. Why do you like what you do?

There is a reason that made you choose this job over another, even if it was out of necessity. You don’t need to summarise your resume, but try to find one or two reasons what you like about your job. Whether you love or hate your job or something in between, there is a reason that made you choose this career over another, and it has something to do with your talents and preferences.

People like enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter if your job sounds superbly fun or unique; it matters that you bring life to it, which is engaging. I have often enjoyed talking with people on networking events where I thought to myself: ‘even if I got paid double, I wouldn’t want to do that job’, but I also was amazed by the enthusiasm the other person showed, and I learned a lot from their view on work and life.

2. Whom do you serve?

Each job in some shape or form helps the world become a better place, even if it is tiny. 

Consultants and change managers are not the only people who actively push for a different approach; everyone does. Think of what would happen if you weren’t working there anymore and your role would not be replaced: who would miss out on your services? What end-goal would not be met? Those are the people you serve and the difference you make.

Whom you serve can be a particular type of client, or an industry as a whole, or a common good, whether you work in a commercial, public or not-for-profit sector. Even if your role focussing on internal responsibilities, you serve two end goals: the people and departments in the organisation, and the clients or end-users of the organisation. You can tweak your elevator pitch accordingly.

3. What do you specialise in?

Maybe it would seem like a good idea to cast your net wide open when presenting yourself to a new person: trying to be relevant to the largest number of people, to get more out of it. But the opposite is often true: one size does not fit all, and in the end, you lose interest and thus business to people who have a more tailored, specialised approach. Initially, it looks you attract the most people to your elevator pitch, but eventually many also slip through the mazes of the net.

Specialisation makes you memorable. A banker is generic; a banker that works on accessing the mortgage market for first-time buyers is memorable; an engineer is generic; an engineer who focusses on building a more sustainable machine is memorable. Remember that at a networking event, your initial goal is to be memorable; not display everything you do.
Furthermore, being specialised helps people to refer you to other people, knowledge, or business.

If you think there is nothing you specialise in, think again. Ponder a bit more on the first two questions: why you do what you do and whom you serve with that. Eventually, the answers will emerge.

For some occupations the specialisation is more important than the particular market which is served; for some people, the why they like to work in a specific industry is an essential part. It is different for everyone where the emphasis is. It also depends on whether you are talking with someone from the same sector compared to someone from a different industry.

How to answer: ‘What do you do?’

To be prepared for the ‘what do you do’, think specifically about these three questions and write them down. Often people have a rough idea on the answer to these questions but haven’t articulated them because it wasn’t needed or seemed obvious. The truth is, for many – including me – the exercise helps to focus and helps the other person to get a better understanding of what you do.

If you don’t articulate the ‘what do you like’, ‘whom you serve’ and ‘specialisation’, listeners will not do this themselves for you. They will fill in the blanks with what they already know about this topic. If you say you are a banker, they will think you make a lot of money which is also what you like about your job; if you say you are an engineer, people think you are nerdy or geeky; etc. These are childish stereotypes that most often don’t reflect you well at all. But this is unfortunately how the human mind works: we need to make sense of the world around us at a rapid pace, so we fill in the blanks with the information we can most easily access: our assumptions based on anything we know about bankers and engineers, which is often not that realistic.

It is your task to avoid that automatism to happen. It is a given that the people you meet have minds on auto-pilot as there is already so much to attend to at a networking event (or life in general). It would be best if you ‘hacked’ that autopilot with something interesting. That’s why the three questions are so relevant to make your answer to a ‘what do you do’ memorable.

Finally, jobs sound more interesting in the active form. ‘what do you do’ has two verbs. Try to formulate your elevator pitch as an active engagement; it enlivens your background and the conversation.

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