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How to Optimally Answer, 'What Do You Do?'

Sometimes, just replying, "You know, I'm not 100 percent sure" breaks the ice and gets a more productive conversation started.

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As a former member of the the networking organization BNI, and an enthusiast of the membership network WeWork, I often hear the same question: "What do you do?"


If you're reading this, I'm sure you've heard it too.

Related: 6 Ways to Improve Your Conversations

It's such a loaded question, isn't it? I've answered it so many times, but I still feel a little flutter in my stomach every time someone asks, "What's your job? What do you do for a living?"

Because the question they're really asking is: "Who are you, and why should I care?"

The problem with standard answers

I could reply, "I'm a writer," or "I'm a content marketer" or "I'm an astronaut." In fact, that's the answer I hear 99 percent of the time. Whether the person answering is 18 or 65, he or she almost always says the same thing: "Oh, I'm an intern at such-and-such bank," or "I'm retired."

But when you give those answers, you're automatically putting yourself in a tiny box. Most people's reaction is to default to either a polite, "Oh, okay" or "Wow, what's that like?" And that reaction usually has to do with how much money they think you're making.

There has got to be a better way to answer this question, right? As it turns out, there is.

Expectations versus reality

People like to compartmentalize and label everything they can. It's human nature. So, when someone asks you, "What do you do?" nine times out of 10, they don't genuinely care about your answer. Whether you're a doctor or a lawyer or an aspiring actor doesn't matter to them.

What they really want to know is, "How can you help me?"

Keeping this in mind, consider something called Jobs to Be Done theory. It's a business theory developed at that has broad implications for everything from to .

What job do you get done?

Jobs to Be Done (JTBD) theory posits that customers don't hire a product because of its bells and whistles and doodads, but because it gets a job done. The quote that sums up JTBD theory best is Theodore Levitt's famous "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole!"

Related: Here's How to Strike Up a Conversation With Almost Anyone

So, when the iPod came out, for example, everyone and their mom bought one not just because it was the coolest thing ever at the time, but because, in 's words, you could have "1,000 songs in your pocket." The iPod completely phased out the Walkman and similar devices because it was much better at getting a specific job done: playing a large, curated selection of music on the go.

Unfortunately, JTBD theory on its own doesn't explain all . For example, how do people choose candy bars? What about soft drinks? Why on earth does anyone choose over ?

The truth is that there are many products out there that are almost exactly the same as other products that people choose, only with the latter, there are emotional reasons involved (where marketing and branding come into play).

Typically, for lower-priced products, consumers choose products for emotional reasons, like a specific type of lifestyle branding, or the goal of saving money. In the higher-priced tiers, consumers choose products for functional reasons, like getting an important job done better than the competition.

While this may all seem tangential to the question, "What do you do?" it's actually relevant. In the real world, people buy products because of functional and emotional reasons. The iPod was a hit because Apple created a product that 100 percent did the functional job better. But the iPod's creators also branded the gadget exceptionally well and created an emotional connection with consumers, too.

How can you help me?

Let's stop talking about products and return to people. As mentioned earlier, when someone asks, "What do you do?" he or she is really asking, "How can you help me?" The questioner wants to know if you can satisfy some functional or emotional need he or she has.

So, when you say, "I'm in sales," you're not really answering either question (unless your questioner is specifically looking to hire a salesperson). When I say, "I'm a writer," that's too unspecific. Some people will automatically assume I'm dirt poor; some will think my work is kind of neat and some won't care either way.

In a business setting, your goal is to frame the question and answer it differently so that you pique your listener's curiosity and convince this person to keep listening.

Two ways to answer, "What do you do?"

I've experimented with a lot of answers to the question, and discovered that two answers are far and away the most engaging (at least in my experience).

When my listener isn't really paying and has just mentally tossed a coin between asking, "What do you do?" and, "How about this weather?" answering the what-do-you-do question in any direct way is a losing battle for attention.

The best way to answer, then, is to be modest and slightly mysterious. For example, at an informal event or get-together where people are asking this as an ice-breaker, I'll say something like, "You know, I'm still not 100 percent sure." That tends to earn me a laugh and some goodwill.

You'll notice that when you answer that way, something interesting happens. If you're confident and carry yourself well, your listener(s) will become interested. Eventually, he or she will come back to you for a more earnest conversation, which you can take in any direction you want because the listener is actually paying attention this time.

For example, I could mention during this second conversation that I run a successful writing agency and actually be heard.

Keep in mind that this second scenario won't happen if my listener wasn't really interested to begin with. If he or she was interested, I'll answer directly -- but in JTBD fashion. For example, I know that no one really cares that I'm a writer. But I also know that most people are interested in how they can further their own business or career.

So, instead of saying I'm a writer, I might say, "I help people and businesses say the right things and get more recognition and customers." That usually gets them interested in a longer conversation. It sets the stage for me to build on the two most important aspects of relationships: trust and respect.

Remember: no one wants to buy a quarter-inch drill--they want a quarter-inch hole. So, give them what they want.

Related: For Better Conversations, Replace 'How Are You?' With This One Phrase

So, what do you do?

The next time someone asks you this tired old question, try out one of these two answers. Or make up your own. The idea is to answer differently than everyone else does and to give your listener a compelling reason to want to talk to you.

In fact, let's take some time to practice right now.

What do you do, again?

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