Your Optimal Reply When Asked, “What Do You Do?” Is 2 Short Sentences

Image with the text "what do you do?"
“So, what do you do?”

You’ll hear that question a zillion times in your career but have you conceived of even one good answer? Few people have.

The answer seems simple, easy, straightforward: I’m in finance…IT…accounting…sales…(fill in the blank). But those are generic, bland, non-descriptive, unhelpful replies. They don't reveal what you actually do.

The questioner asks for a verb, you give an adjective. They seek enlightenment, you obscure. They seek information, you supply a label. The listener wants a picture, you give a grunt. You help neither yourself nor your listener with truncated answers.

Time to get it right.

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Your Optimal Reply succeeds or fails by its explanatory power

If your reply is a word picture that that makes it easy for your listener, then it’s powerful and valuable.

Your Optimal Reply describes then demonstrates what you really do. It consists of two short, simple, sentences:

Illustration of corporate job interview

1st sentence: In 15 or fewer words, state the one thing you want people to remember about you. Decide this in advance (do your brain a favour, prepare), so you’ll answer seamlessly and smoothly.

2nd sentence: In 25 or fewer words, state an example, testimonial, or success story that demonstrates your 1st sentence. The 2nd sentence shows how you saved the day, earned somebody heaps of money, solved a problem.

Which Reply is More Captivating? You judge, which sentence sounds better:

Illustration of two people having a conversation

I’m director of financial aid at a university, or, I give away $32m every year to needy students, many of whom graduate with honours.

I’m in finance, or, I keep construction projects on time and on budget.

I’m a writer, or, I ghost write for celebrities.

I’m an accountant, or, I advise our CEO on company expansion.

I’m a marketing consultant, or, I help people get the word out about their products.

I’m a public speaker, or, I get people interacting at conferences.

I’m with Ikea, or I help people create liveable spaces that they love.

Here’s an example from my executive performance practice: I help execs succeed before they start in new roles. (10 words)

Why we ask “What Do You Do?”

Illustration of corporate people gathering

This question is not just a name exchange, it’s a building block of business. It’s not a chore; it’s a necessary ritual, a prelude to building any relationship. Your reply stimulates conversation (“I write tweets for Donald Trump.”), or sucks the life out of it (“I’m a public servant, accountant, lawyer, banker, doctor, clerk, sales person…).

The only test is: does your Optimal Reply work for you? Does it entice your listener to ask for more info; does it lead to genuine conversation?

The 4 Most Common Replies Fail:

1. The most common reply is your occupation. This never works because it communicates so little. To say “I’m a writer” does not convey the same meaning as “I write big speeches for the Prime Minister.” The occupation answer leaves a listener with nowhere to go and makes them do the heavy conversational lifting. Your Optimal Reply allows you to separate yourself from the other 37 writers in the room (or lawyers, accountants, bankers, sales people, etc.) so use this verbal opportunity to shine.

2. The other standard reply is job title, eg., Sales Manager, Managing Director, Technical Supervisor, Software Developer, etc. These words have little direct meaning. You’re asking the listener to surmise what you do. Too hard! Don’t make me trawl through the archives of my mind to figure out what you do. Tell me!

3. Another stock reply is industry: I’m in…real estate, sales, finance, IT, pharma, etc. But your listener already knows 40 people in that industry so what’s special about you? You just joined the mental mob inside your listener’s head. Instead of saying what makes you different, you settled for “I’m with them!’

4. The worst reply of all is organisation. Unless you’re Mickey Mouse don’t bask in Disney’s glory.

You may work for a big name, blue chip, multi-national brand company but they’re not you and you’re not them. Stop pretending that you’re Tesla, Google, GE, etc. You’re an employee, which is why people ask, ‘what do you do?’

Wearing the company name like a fig leaf (covering up your deficiencies, hmmmm?) achieves nothing.

Cloaking yourself in the company flag won’t make anyone salute you.

The problem with these 4 trite replies is that they don’t stimulate conversation, they stifle it. That’s exactly the opposite of what you want. Make it easy on your listener. Deliver the message, don’t make them dig for it.

Your Optimal Reply distinguishes you from the pack (because everybody else makes the 4 errors above)

Illustration of a father explaining his work to his child

Please note, your Optimal Reply is not the accursed elevator pitch (never pitch unless somebody’s catching) nor is it an infomercial for yourself.

It’s the first, necessary step in building a trusting relationship with anybody, anytime, anywhere. It should be simple enough for a child to understand.

Your title and employer may change but your abilities remain constant. So, shine your verbal light on them when answering “what do you do?”

Zen Story: Kitagaki, the Governor of Kyoto, visited master Keichu

Rocks lined up on top of water

He presented his business card, which read “Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto” to the attendant.

Master Keichu received the card and said “I have no business with such a man, turn him away.”

Apologising profusely the attendant returned the card to Kitagaki, who paused, struck through Governor of Kyoto, and asked the attendant to try again.

“Oh!” said Keichu, “It’s Kitagaki. I want to see that fellow.”

Illustration of "Nice to Meet You"

When you come as a person rather than a status, a job, or company you’ll be received warmly.

Doesn’t it feel great when someone says “nice to meet you” and means it.

Picture of Dr. Duff Watkins

Dr. Duff Watkins

Hosts the podcast “10 Lessons It Took Me 50 Years To Learn” and is Director of ExecSearch International- Australia.

Discover more expert advice from Dr. Duff Watkins. Visit ExecSearch International- Australia for more details.

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