In the interest of full disclosure, the names in this true story have been changed to protect the guilty.

I’m standing next to my friend John, who just opened his own web development shop, at a networking event. I am pleasantly enjoying some of the really good low carb fare when I hear someone ask him the dreaded question: What do you do?

Instantly my ears perk up because I know that John is a really talented guy but his skills with people could use some polish.

It took him a minute before he plainly said I’m a web developer. The conversation ended pretty quickly.

John missed what could have been a golden opportunity because he couldn’t answer the question.

The question wasn’t what do you call yourself or what’s your job title, the question was what do you do. His answer was to the wrong question.

When we answer the dreaded question of what do you do with our job title and company, we assume that the people we’re talking to will understand what that means. Most of the time we don’t but are too polite to say so and the conversation dies.

The best way to answer this question is to rephrase the question in our head. When we hear someone ask us what you do? We should think they’re asking us what you can do for me?

Thinking about the question this way, a solid answer does two things:

1. It describes the benefit that our customers get from working with us.

2. It encourages a follow up question to keep the conversation moving.

If John had replied with “I help small businesses implement diverse strategies to get found and engage customers online.” He does both.

His job title is irrelevant because he’s talking about what he can do for people which is what they really want to know anyway.

To take your answer to the next level, provide an example that people are familiar with. In keeping with the theme for John, he could follow up his initial statement with an example that he works as a online marketing department for companies that are too small to have one in house. People know what this means. They can relate to what he’s saying and even if they’re not a potential prospect, he’s now given them enough of an answer that they can refer someone to him the next time they’re talking with someone who might be.

To be clear, I’m not talking about an elevator pitch. I’m talking about describing what it is that actually we do in the most compelling way possible. I’m talking about answering the question and doing it in a way that will keep the conversation moving.

I shared my thoughts on this with John after our night out together. He told me that he’d never thought about it that way before. Doing it this way requires quite a bit more thought in general. It forces us to think about what our real benefit to our clients and customers truly is, but when we answer the question we set ourselves up to stand out and be remembered.

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