How to Answer "What do you do?"

A couple of years ago, I gathered the courage to leap away from my corporate cubicle in search for more joy and meaning in my career. And while my journey to eventually launching my freelance creative copywriting business has been filled with all the kinds of fears and challenges one might expect to face when taking the entrepreneurship path, one of the things that, surprisingly, caused me major stress was attending social events.

From dinner parties to networking events, mingling with new faces and others we haven’t seen in a while, inevitably leads to being asked “What do you do?” over and over again - a common question that we use to fill awkward silences and start conversations, or a seemingly innocent attempt to put people in labelled boxes.

But really “Who are you?”

You see, although my last job didn’t fulfill me, I was conditioned to tying my identity and self-worth to my professional achievements, automatically responding with, ”I’m Job title X and Company Y.”

So that should give you an idea of the discomfort I felt while mustering the courage to say that I was actually still figuring things out. In my head, that was synonymous to saying, “I am nobody!”.

I’d walk away after each new encounter feeling subtly disappointed with myself and somewhat empty because the way I was introducing myself to people revealed a lot about my self-image or the way I viewed, valued and, ultimately, treated myself.

You are not just your job.

But even if you are happily employed or have your career path figured out for the next ten years down the line, introducing yourself with your job title may not only make you come off as a boring and sometimes snobbish person, but it also doesn’t reveal much about who you actually are or what’s unique or awesome about you.

“I’m the Regional Manager of My-Company-is Better-Than-Yours.”

“I’m the Head of Strategic Initiatives at Who-Gives-A-Shit.”

Remember that, most of the time, your job title will not mean anything to anyone outside of your company. In fact, according to Joanna Bloor, a specialist in helping people discover and articulate what makes them distinctive, when you introduce yourself with your job title you’re essentially missing out on an opportunity to create a genuine connection with people.

Feeling stumped?

Based on some of Joanna’s suggestions and my own research on the topic, here are three techniques to help you come up with a more memorable self-introduction or response to “What do you do?” at any stage in your career:

1- Frame yourself as a problem solver

People are more likely to remember what you do when they can relate to a problem that you can solve for them or others. When I’m working with a new client on their brand identity, I always find it helpful to start by asking, “How do your products or services help others?”.

For example, my friend Amjad who is a Regional Health, Safety and Environment Manager at Company X usually responds with “I help keep the world safe.” I don’t know about you, but I’d definitely be intrigued to learn more about Amjad’s job after hearing his response as opposed to his job title.

So instead of just blurting out your title, take the opportunity to explain to the other person how you add value through your work. Try using this tactic on yourself. What problems do you solve through your work? Why does your work matter?

You might want to start by crafting a few responses that begin with “I help people ….” and see where that leads you. As an independent creative copywriter, I sometimes use, “I help companies and entrepreneurs connect with people through creative storytelling,” which often times leads to more interesting questions and better conversations.

2-   Leave the room

Another question I usually ask my clients when working on their website copy, LinkedIn profile summary or resume is, “What would you like people to say about you when you’re not in the room?” (Oh! You didn’t actually think I’m suggesting that you physically leave the room, did you?).

Although this question can sometimes be uncomfortable, it is quite revealing in that it gets people to think about their unique talents and skills, or the impact they would like to leave in the world.

One of my favorite examples on this tactic comes from world traveling storyteller and founder of the Good Good Good Newspaper, Branden Harvey. Instead of introducing himself as a photographer and journalist, Branden uses a much deeper and more interesting one-line description, which is: “I tell stories of the good in the world.”

Not only does Branden’s description immediately distinguishes him in my mind from other storytellers, but it also reveals a lot about his views on the media and the impact that he’d like to make in the world.

3. Bring in some emotion

The next time someone asks you “What do you do?” try to spark some feelings or emotions in your conversation. To do this effectively, you’ll need to reveal some honest truths about yourself. Don’t shy away from getting a bit personal - talk about a struggle that you’re trying to overcome, a dream that you have for the future, or a side project or hobby that excites you. Bonus points if you talk about something that lights you up!

For example, you could say, “I currently work in sales, but I dream about starting my own bakery one day,” or “I’m currently training for my first marathon,” or “I teach women how to fall back in love with their bodies.”

This approach may allow you to bond over a shared interest or encourage others to share some of their own interests, struggles, and hopes for the future. Chances are that the other person will bring up an opportunity, contact, business or idea that could help you!

Over to you…

I’m curious, how do you usually respond to “What do you do?” and what’s the most memorable response you got to that question. Tell me in the comments section below.

I have to admit I’m still working on my response and resisting the temptation of going back to my usual answer.