Tackling the “What Do You Do?” Question

“So, what kind of work do you do?”

Have you been asked this question lately? I bet you have. This seems to be the go-to icebreaker when we meet new people at social gatherings.

When I was in my twenties living and working in Manhattan, this question got me all riled up. Isn’t the substance of a person more than what happens at work?

I longed for people to ask different questions, like “What brought you to New York?” or “What do you do for fun?” I still do.

But these days I accept that the "What do you do?" question must be dealt with, and I help my clients prepare their answers.


It's a fact of life that asking about a job is something that many people use as a short-cut; it’s a way of quickly forming an opinion about someone.

Now imagine this.

You are on an airplane, and to your amazement you find yourself sitting next to Bill Gates.

Wow! Your heart starts to beat a little faster. He looks up at you and nods.

You compliment him on his charitable organization, and he smiles and thanks you, saying something gracious about Melinda.

Then Bill asks you the dreaded question, “What do you do?”

Oh no! What now?

How do you answer this question? How do you talk about your work with ease and confidence?

Here’s how:

A Summary Statement + “So What” = Success

Step #1) The very first thing you want to do is deliver a brief summary of what you do.

This statement must be clear and crisp. The goal of a summary statement is to spark the listener’s interest, so it shouldn’t be too short.


Too short: I'm in sales

This is better: I’m a senior sales rep for a pharmaceutical company called BosTech

Too short: I’m a teacher

This is better: I teach history at Clinton Memorial High School in Chicago

Too short: I’m an entrepreneur

This is better: I run my own company called The Polished Speaker

Step #2) Next you’ll add in the SO WHAT….

By adding a little information about the benefits of your work, you establish credibility for yourself and your company – AND you open the door for interesting conversation.

In his book – aptly titled So What? How to Communicate What Matters to Your Audience - Mark Magnacca provides a simple and useful formula for positioning yourself:

  • “Do you know how…. (problem or concern)?”

  • “Well, what I (or we) do is… (solution to problem or concern).”

Let’s expand on my earlier example, using these prompts:

SALESREP: I’m a senior sales rep for a pharmaceutical company called BosTech.

Do you know how most autoimmune diseases still have no cure? Well, we specialize in funding drugs that help patients with Lupus and Fibromyalgia have a better quality of life.

TEACHER: I teach history at Clinton Memorial High School in Chicago.

You've probably heard that most inner-city schools struggle with graduation rates? Clinton is exceptional because 85% of our students head off to college or vocational school.

ENTREPENEUR: I run my own company called The Polished Speaker.

Do you know it's common for smart, technically savvy, talented people to need help with their communication skills? Leaders work with us to become great speakers, whether they are connecting with just one other person or a large audience.

Okay, now it's your turn.

Take a moment and write down your summary statement, and then add in a little bit more about the problem you solve.

Congratulations! You are ready with an answer to the “What do you do?” question, anywhere, anytime...at work, at parties, and even on an airplane with Bill.



Get the Blog
delivered to your inbox!
Featured Post
Recent Posts