Many people, especially men, dislike the question “What do you do?” They feel the person asking the question is about to judge them based on their response, sorting them into either “successful” or “not worth my time”—but is this true?
Yes and no. When I ask this question, I am interested in whether or not the person’s profession suggests the potential for a business relationship. The answer also helps me understand the person’s world view, so that I can make my conversation more relevant to my listener. I suggest that people release the concern about being judged and just accept this question as an indication of interest in case the two of you have a mutual benefit to gain from relating.
But how can you respond to take advantage of the opportunity this question presents?
Focus on what the hearer or reader may want to know. Give a very short answer and then turn it back to the listener. Say, for example, “I provide writing services. What about you?” Listeners will be relieved that you gave such a short answer instead of subjecting them to a 10-minute discourse on the minutiae of your job. Of course, their questions will not yet be answered. Good job—you created curiosity! Now, when it’s your turn again, and you give them more details about what you do, you will know which direction to turn the conversation based on what they do. For example, if they say, “I do business development with companies that contract to the federal government,” now you know that they may be more interested in your business writing services than your book writing services. If they say, “I am looking for a position in public relations,” you will know that your listeners might appreciate some help in the resume writing area.
Another way to answer this question to advantage is to speak of types of clients (needs, situations, and benefits) rather than types of services. So instead of saying, “I provide business writing, resume writing, grant writing, and book services,” say, “I help people bring in more sales, get a better job, win grant money, or advance their career.” Cool! Who wouldn’t want to have someone like that in their network? Hopefully the listener will then ask you another question. If so, good job! Again you were succinct (showing respect for other people’s time), and again you created curiosity.
When you mention your services, say why you’re the best person for that job. For example, I can tell people that my team has won over $470 million in grant funding. OK—now we have some credibility! Assume that your listener knows someone who will be happy to find such a competent company to help them meet a need.
Don’t give your name when you first meet someone. Engage that person and get to know him or her. That way, when you give your name, s/he will remember it. The mind cannot hook onto information to memorize it without having any context. Once the person knows something about you, he will be more likely to remember your name when you give it.
When you meet a new prospective customer or network member, ask a lot of questions before you offer recommendations. Recommendations establish you as an expert, but they will rub the person the wrong way if you offer them without knowing what the person has already tried and what she thinks the problem and solution are. Know what the needs are and establish trust first. Then ask, “Would you like to hear my recommendations in this situation?” If yes, go for it. Then check for her feedback on how well the recommendations seem to fit.
Speak in positive terms except when noting what could go wrong without your help. For example, I could say, “I help nonprofits win grant funding. I like being in this industry because there is a lot of demand, and I am glad to offer an ethical business model in a field that contains unscrupulous businesses.”
Compensate for gender differences in communication. Women may find men’s communication too blunt or uncaring; men may find women’s lacking in confidence. If you are a woman, don’t undermine yourself by saying “just,” “actually,” “thinking off the top of my head,” “take a few minutes,” or making your statements sound like questions. If you are a man, be sure to include niceties like “Thank you for sharing your thoughts so openly about this” before delving into a substantive response.
At a networking event, ask “Who are you here to meet that I might be able to introduce you to?” At a networking one-to-one, the equivalent is, “How can I help you in your business?” Then get busy being helpful to that person if he seems like a good networker, because givers gain. If he says instead, “I’m just here to meet pretty girls” or “I’m just here to represent the company,” you have a non-networker on your hands. To make a fast exit, stick out your hand and say, “Great! Well, it was so nice meeting you. Please let me know if I can ever help you or someone you know.” Offer your card and move on.