“What do you do?”

What do you do - image for article by Greg Alder

How many times have you been asked this question? At a barbeque? In a bar?

What’s your answer?

Here’s how most of us respond:
“I’m an accountant.”
“I’m a diesel mechanic.”
“I’m a colorectal surgeon.”

We answer with the job description that’s on our business card or employment contract or diploma.

That’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Why?

Firstly, think about the context of the question. “What do you do?” is usually a way to start a conversation. By answering with our job title, we effectively kill as many conversations as we start. If I ask you what you do for a living and you tell me you’re a colorectal surgeon, my interest in continuing the conversation is linked directly to my interest in colorectal surgery. If I have no interest (or worse, colorectal surgery repulses me), I’ll respond with a dismissive “Oh” and change the topic. On the other hand, if I’ve been suffering bowel discomfort, I’ll use this as an opportunity for free medical advice. And if I happen to be a colorectal surgeon, we’ll talk shop.

Secondly, answering with your job description misses a massive opportunity to intrigue your audience, sell the benefits of your skills, put you job into context and build appreciation for what you do. How?

Here’s an example. A while back I conducted workshops for India’s biggest FM radio network. We held workshops in Mumbai and Delhi with about 70 key staff flown in from regional cities. At the start of the workshops, each of the participants responded to “What do you do?” with “I’m a radio jock” or “I’m a producer” or “I’m a programming head”. Bald statements of fact.

By the end of the workshops, this is how one radio jock answered the same question: “I bring sunshine into people’s lives.” No mention of job function or title. Only a benefit.

The answer is cryptic and intriguing. I want to know more: “Oh really? How?”

“I make people smile. I share stories. I tell jokes. I play the music that’s the soundtrack to their day.”

I’m intrigued further: “How do you do that? Where do you work?”

“I’m a radio jock with Radio Mirchi Mumbai.”

This is the reverse of what we usually do. We start with a job description and then, if given the chance, flesh out some details and maybe add some benefits.

Why’s it important to switch our answer around?

Too often we fail to fully appreciate our own value and the benefits we deliver to our clients. Because we don’t appreciate them ourselves, we don’t promote them. By simply describing our job title, we are at the mercy of our audience to decide if we are interesting, valuable and beneficial.

Every one of us is a brand. In this, we are no different from Nike or McDonalds. If I met Nike at a party and asked “What do you do?”, Nike might respond with “I help people realise their sporting ambitions” or “I help people emulate their sporting heroes”.

Nike wouldn’t answer with “I make shoes.” McDonalds wouldn’t answer with “I make hamburgers”. Neither of these answers gives any clue at all as to what makes Nike or McDonalds different from all other shoemakers or hamburger shops.

So how do you work out what to say? Here’s a simple exercise that few of us do:

Write down who benefits from what you do. (Think beyond your immediate client to her employees, suppliers, families and community.)

Write down how they benefit.

Write down what problems you solve or opportunities you make possible.

Write down the flow-on effect of solving these problems or enabling these opportunities. (Your client can focus on other aspects of business or your patient can live a more fulfilling family life.)

Now look at your credentials presentation, website, CV, social media bio or sales pitch. Are they client-focussed? Do they encapsulate your benefits? Or do they simply expand on your job description with a list of your skills, experience, prices and services?

Getting this right won’t make you more interesting at barbeques or watering holes. But it will make you a better and more successful brand.

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Mike Miller

    Hi Greg,

    Hope you are well and you had a great Xmas and New Year.

    I really liked your blog post “What do you do”.

    The whole personal (and professional) branding exercise is very interesting.

    I’d like to talk to you some more about it.

    There’s so many places that one needs to post a bio. Yet, I’m sure most people like me, find it hard to write one.

    I’m sure if I read over the bios on my websites, I fall mainly in the ‘job’ description style.

    And it would be also great to catch up next time I’m in Sydney. Or if you are passing through LA.

    Talk soon.



    1. says: Greg Alder

      Mike, we’re all just starting to grasp the value of personal branding. And yes, bios are really difficult things to write so that they project what makes each of us unique – our skills, values, personality, passions, purpose, benefits. Yes please, let’s arrange to catch up either when you’re next in Sydney or I pass through LA. Take care. Greg

    1. says: Greg Alder

      Thanks Sam. Really appreciate your feedback. Hopefully you’ll find more interesting posts in the archives and coming up in the future.

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