What do you do? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly at both virtual and in-person networking events. It’s a dreaded question. You tell people what you do “I’m a doctor, lawyer, accountant” and then there is an awkward silence. How exactly do you respond to a statement like that?
Conversations are like ping-pong. There needs to be a back and forth, a natural and sustained cadence. To do that you need to understand the rhythm of a conversation. A statement is made, a question is asked, another statement is made, another question or comment is made, and so on. If you don’t know where to start the conversation, you might be interested in my Forbes article on how to initiate a conversation with a stranger.
If you get the dreaded “What do you do?” question, instead of telling someone what your profession is, tell people what problem you solve. This opens up a floodgate of potential follow-up questions. Consider the rewording of these introductions for some popular professions:
Letting someone know you are a doctor tells them very little, other than the fact that you went to medical school and trained for many years. What kind of doctor are you? For example, if you are a neurologist, go deeper into the problem you are trying to solve. Perhaps you help alleviate migraines or are working on Alzheimer’s prevention. This opens the door for countless follow up discussions as most people know someone who suffers from migraines or Alzheimer’s. Perhaps they’ll ask why you picked this specialty or how much you appreciate that someone is looking at ways to prevent Alzheimer’s and why.
Chief Operations Officer (COO)
Instead of sharing that you are a COO, which can mean a whole host of varying responsibilities, telling someone that you manage 5,000 employees and processes in Silicon Valley as you develop new social media platforms, gives the conversation more context.
Potential follow-up questions might dive into a deeper understanding of what the new social media platform will do, who is the target audience, when will it be launched, how is it different from what is already on the market.
I work to educate the next generation of budding entrepreneurs while teaching them how to write impactful business plans, pitch their ideas, and get seed funding, gives someone a visual of what you do.
A follow-up question might delve into how long you’ve been teaching, how students today are different from when you first started teaching or what is the favorite pitch that you heard.
I am working on a treatment for _____. I study _______.
Your conversation partner might ask you how you became interested in this topic, how long you’ve been studying it, or where you work.
Vice President of Student Affairs
Telling someone that you manage all of the non-classroom time (that’s XXX hours per week) for 7,000 students is a great deal more informative than the title, which probably means little to someone, not in the industry.
This introduction might lead to a discussion of what are the most popular activities, Greek life on campus, and the sorority/fraternity friends you are still in touch with, or what activities they would most like to host and how you could possibly help with that.
There are so many types of lawyers, so telling someone the title doesn’t actually tell them very much. If you tell them that you investigate sexual harassment claims, that’s a different story.
Your conversation-mate might follow up by asking if these claims have increased since the #MeToo movement, or ask how this has changed now that much of the workforce is virtual.
Your title is not nearly as glamorous or informative as telling people the problem you solve. By making this slight pivot in telling people what you do can open up an entire dialogue, find shared interests, and possibly new opportunities.