What do you do? It's probably the first and most predictable question that you'll be asked in any professional networking environment. Yet, most of us dread it because it is a loaded question. Underneath its simplicity is a rich subtext that says:
How powerful are you?
Should I give you my time and attention?
What can you do for me?
What is your level of education?
What is your socioeconomic status?
You Are So Much More Than A Job Title
A common reaction is to answer by parroting your job title. This allows the person who asked the question to label you and fill in the blanks for whatever subtext they had in mind. It's not an incorrect way to respond but tells people what they want to hear, and not what you want them to know about the meaning, value, passion, and service in the work that you do.
This is especially true if you do many different things, are in between careers or are undergoing a career evolution.
Your job title is a one dimensional way to label yourself. A better answer will tell a story about who you are.
What Are You Really Being Asked?
Grammar gives us cues in conversation all the time. Although we rarely think about it, the way a question is asked will inform how it can be answered. It's something I covered frequently as an ESL teacher and have learned to rely on as a lifelong student of foreign languages. Look for clues in questions to determine what you are being asked.
In the question: what do you do the verb "to do" is being used twice. The question wants to know what verb or verbs we engage in on a regular basis. Yet in common practice, it has transformed into a way to ask someone about their job title. Instead of answering with a verb, we answer with a noun and miss out on an opportunity to engage with the question on a deeper level.
Answer With An Action Verb
Your answer should include an action verb, a target audience and a value statement.
For example: instead of saying "I'm a small business coach"
Try: "I teach and motivate entrepreneurs to identify and embrace their strengths so they can grow their businesses through a deep connection with their customers.
In practice, it might be a little awkward to blurt out this answer in one go. So, you'll have to use your social acuity to work these things into conversation naturally. The point is, try to make sure you touch on all three of these areas in any conversations prompted by the question what do you do.
"What do I do" if i'm unemployed or between jobs?
If you are between jobs , hoping to change careers or are in the middle of a career transformation you can answer the question by highlighting the kind of work you want to do. Don't be afraid to give aspirational answers. You can do this by saying "I plan to" or "I would like to" followed by your goals and qualifications. Additionally, you can describe what you are passionate about.
For example, If I am copywriter between contracts I can say "I am passionate about creating content that tells a story." A logical follow-up question like "where or who do you work for" gives you the opportunity to weave in your target audience and your value statement.
"I love helping smalls business owners cultivate a brand voice so that they can communicate better with current and prospective clients."
Help Shift Networking Culture By Asking Different Questions
You can help improve networking experiences by normalizing more inventive questions. There will always be plenty of people to ask "what do you do?" You can mix it up by asking more focused questions that get to the heart of someone's work.
Questions To Ask Instead Of: What Do You Do?
Bring A Spirit of Innovation Into Future Networking Experiences
Networking habits are changing and evolving. In the past year we have had to find ways to connect digitally in lieu of coming together in person. This required a shift in the way that we approach networking experiences. While I have no doubt that we will return to in-person networking in the future, I hope that we bring the spirit of innovation that we have cultivated in the last 7 months with us into the future by rethinking the questions and answers that we ask.