What Kind of Work Do You Do?

You might think I’m making this up, but I assure you that every word of this story is true…

A few years ago, my family and I went on vacation to Panama. It’s a beautiful country with amazing wildlife and lots of very nice people. We had a great time.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak any Spanish.

And so on the day we arrived, I turned to my then 17-year-old son Evan (the ranking Spanish speaker in the family) and asked him to teach me a phrase or two.

He asked me what I wanted to learn. I thought about it a little while and said, “Teach me how to say, ‘What kind of beer do you have?’ in Spanish.”

He told me, and over the next few days, I continually muttered my new phrase: “Que tipo de cerveza tiene?”

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Boating through the jungle, visiting an Embera village, playing cards at night, whatever. Over and over I said to nobody in particular: “Que tipo de cerveza tiene?”

Towards the end of the week, we visited a beautiful, starfish-covered, white sand beach that someone had directed us to. It was completely deserted – nobody around, in either direction, for as far as you could see.

My family went in the water in search of starfish; I sat on a towel watching.

After a couple of minutes I sensed someone standing behind me; I turned around and found myself face to face with an old man and a little boy.

They had been pushing a wheelbarrow down the beach. It was filled with ice and … loose bottles of beer for sale.

And so I looked at the man and, without letting on that this was, in fact, the one and only Spanish phrase in my possession, said, “Que tipo de cerveza tiene?”

He smiled and complimented me on my command of the language (as far as I could tell; I actually have no idea what he said), and I sat back down with a cold bottle of beer.

Now I don’t know if his arrival at that moment was just coincidence or if my incessant repeating of that single phrase all week conjured him up out of thin air. (I regret not having checked for wheeelbarrow tracks in the sand.)

Either way, I think you’d agree that learning a random Spanish phrase in the hope that at some point during the week I’d be in the perfect position to use it is clearly a low percentage bet.

But you know what’s a high percentage bet? … that at some point during each week someone will ask you, “What kind of work do you do?”

At the doctor’s office, at a business networking event, at an underinflated Superbowl party (sorry). Whatever the circumstances, people (Americans, anyway) ask each other what they do for a living.

When that happens, you have two options. You can either spit up whatever random blah, blah comes to mind in the moment or (recommended), you can take time now to figure something out and rehearse it.

Here, from my Practical and Tactical, Solo Professional Breakthrough Year course, are some sample answers (from real solo professionals) to the “What do you do?” question:

Margaret Cassidy: I’m an ethics and compliance lawyer. Companies hire me to keep them out of trouble.

Michelle Morris: I’m a financial planner. I specialize in helping single women make sense of their money and their taxes.

Diane Spadola: I am a face and body painter. I specialize in providing artistic entertainment for all ages that will make a special event more memorable.

Whatever you decide to say, keep it simple and rehearse it, word for word. Then try it with real people and see how it plays.

Here’s the bottom line. The “What kind of work do you do?” question comes without warning and the opportunity to answer it lasts for just a brief moment – there’s no time to check your notes and no point in just rambling aimlessly.

If you want people to understand what you do and, as important, remember it for longer than it takes to drink a beer on the beach, spend time now committing it to memory.

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57 thoughts on “What Kind of Work Do You Do?

  1. Stacy Williams

    “We help our clients get heard.” (Part 1: designed to intrigue and be memorable. Inevitably, the next question is “how do you do that?”) We get our clients’ websites ranked high in the search engines, and then we get more of those site visitors to convert to leads.”

    Reply
  2. Rick Siderfin

    Great story, Michael!

    Asking what someone does for work is not just an American characteristic. We British do this too, at social events, and other occasions when conversation is utterly unavoidable – such as all the times we get stuck in elevators or while having our hair cut. [Remember that? Sorry.]

    Fantastic idea to get it all nicely prepared. So here is mine.

    “I’m a writer and an entrepreneur. I’m building the world’s premier online destination for fellow Entrepreneurs and Wantrepreneurs at WingsToSuccess.com.”

    Any good? Or does it need improving upon?

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I think that’s nicely concise, Rick. I might lose the ‘wantrepreneurs’ in this context though. I find these “what do you do?” questions happen at such an early stage of inquiry that anything too clever can be a distraction. If you take it away, I think I’m more likely to remember what you do in a week.

      And interesting to know that the Brits do the same as we do. I’ve heard, though, that in many other countries people know each other for years and never have any idea what the other person does for work!

      Thanks for writing, I’ll check out your site,
      Michael

      Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Well put, Steve!

      I have no idea what type of beer it was, but I do remember that it only cost $1.

      Reply
  3. Kristen

    Still working on this, but:

    I’m a graphic designer. I help schools and nonprofits get noticed so they can attract the support they need to carry out their mission.

    I’ve been told to not put the title in there, though, as it makes the person stop listening and fill in the blanks with their own ideas of what that title means. How do you feel about that line of thought?

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Kristen!

      By title I assume you mean graphic designer? I think that’s essential and I always recommend that people begin with the title – the generic version of whatever it is they do. Otherwise they don’t have the slightest idea what “species” you are.

      Then, and in the name of keeping it super simple, I’d recommend trimming your second part down a bit, maybe to just “I specialize in helping schools and nonprofits get noticed.”

      And I know, it’s an oversimplification and doesn’t at all speak to the benefit of what you do. But in my experience, word of mouth – which is really what we’re trying to cultivate here – is about people being able to put you in a tight, clear box. That way, when somebody says, “Hey, my school needs help with some design stuff, can you recommend anyone?” you are the obvious referral.

      Michael

      Reply
  4. Teresa

    I’m a parent educator. I help parents across the world create positive, equitable, and compassionate relationships with children that will change their families (and the world).

    I am also still working on this.

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Teresa,
      I think it needs to be simplified. When I read what you wrote I’m still left asking, “So what do you mean, I don’t really get it?” And I have no idea how or why I’d hire you or to whom I’d recommend you (for the same reason).

      How would you explain what you do to a 12 year old?

      Michael

      Reply
      1. Teresa

        I decided to ask my 13 year old. He’s read my blog and done videos with me. He said, “You help parents learn from their mistakes so they become better parents.”

        Reply
        1. Michael Katz Post author

          I like it! But what do you actually do? Are you a one on one coach, or a therapist, or a person who gives workshops or something else entirely?

          Sort of like if someone said, “I make the world a safer place for car owners.” That’s part of the story, but I’m still not sure if that person designs cars, builds cars, teaches people to drive, is an auto mechanic, works for a government saftey agency, etc. This is important, because I can’t/won’t hire or refer you until I can understand something about how you work.

          Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hello Brad!
      Is that actually what you say?
      Here’s how I’ve always described you: Brad’s a CFO for hire. He fills the gap for small companies that have outgrown the bookkeeper but are not yet ready to bring in a full time CFO.

      What do you think?
      Michael

      Reply
      1. Brad Howe

        Yeah, you’re probably right, Michael. That’s what I’ve always used, too, but I tried to get cutesy at a cocktail party this evening. In retrospect the company doctor thing didn’t really connect, though it might have in another setting. I’ll probably stick with what got me here. If it ain’t broke…etc.

        Reply
  5. Roger

    Great job and luck finding a dead on opportunity for your beer question. .

    “I introduce people to the many wonderful benefits that automated shades have to offer.”

    Cheers

    Reply
  6. Jeremy Bromberg

    I work with business owners. I help them figure out and put in place ways to organize their business, execute better, and make more money!

    25 words, booyah!

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Alexandre!
      So are you are marketing consultant or more like an operations consultant (or something else)?
      Michael

      Reply
  7. Kathie Gow

    I’m a digital storyteller. I help people tell stories about their lives, and museums tell stories about their stuff.

    (oh, and for people who are packrats or like to collect, like me, I could also help PEOPLE tell stories about their stuff!)

    Reply
  8. Samantha White

    I love your newsletter, and this assignment! I came up with:

    I’m a personal Life Coach. I provide education and support to individuals going through personal life transitions.

    Is the lingo too psycho-babble?

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Samantha,

      I think it’s only slightly babble-ish. Do you focus on any particular types of people or any particular types of life transitions? And if not, can you be a bit more specific on what you mean by life transitions? How is that different from life itself?!

      Michael

      Reply
      1. Samantha White

        Thanks, Michael. Well, that’s the thing, people in transitions includes just about everyone at one time or another. I specialize in working with people who have suffered great loss, whether of a child or a house or a pet or a job or a limb, or have recently blended families, or switched towns, employers, careers, usually heavy-duty stuff like abuse, suicide, homicide, and are in a lot of pain and want to find their way out. Or someone they love is dying. They need to talk, I’m trained to listen, and I have a lot of personal and professional experience in those areas. But I don’t want to scare people away by presenting myself as the Death Lady, I want to seem easily approachable about anything that is personal, rather than business-related. It’s about how to get through life on your own terms. Any suggestions? I’m at only 18 words, so there’s room to tweak . . .

        Reply
      2. Samantha White

        Would changing “transitions” to “changes” make it less technical/clinical? And, instead of “I provide education and support” to “I educate and support individuals going through personal life changes?”

        I want to be concise, accurate, and appealing, all at once, and hope they’ll be intrigued enough to ask me more.

        Reply
      3. Samantha White

        I also notice that some people say, “I help . . .” or “I provide . ..” or “I sell/classify/write. etc. “Help” is vague, but vague is broad, and that’s good. “Provide” seems more formal, but it can be followed by a string of services, which is also good. Definitive verbs such as “sell/classify/write, etc. nail it. But I don’t know that what I do can be nailed down.

        I really think of myself as a guide. “I guide individuals through personal life changes,” but it sounds like new-age-spirituality. Which is actually close to how I think of it, but it scares people who equate it with mysticism, auras, aromatherapy, numerology, etc.

        Do you have a preference for what kind of verb follows “I” in the second sentence of the response?

        Reply
  9. Theresa Singleton

    I’m a scientific writer. I specialize in writing biomedical research manuscripts for biotech/pharma clients for submission to peer reviewed journals.

    How’s that? Too long/clunky?

    Hi Michael! I’ve just discovered you through SPC. I was looking forward to your talk this week on word of mouth marketing and was bummed when I learned it was cancelled. Although, I must say I’m happy to have not been on the road late Monday night.

    I’ll keep an eye out for the next one.

    Theresa

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Theresa!

      I think it contains too many words that require me to think. As someone outside your field I could probably figure it out, but you want a sentence that doesn’t require any work on my part. For word of mouth to work, I need to understand it and remember it two weeks from now when I’m sitting in starbucks and someone tells me they are looking for a scientific writer!

      So what if you said something like:

      I’m a scientific writer. I specialize in writing manuscripts for biotech/pharma companies.

      Clearly, it’s an oversimplification of the truth of what you do. But in my experience that’s a requirement (if it doesn’t feel like an oversimplification, you’re generally not doing it right!).

      And yes, sorry the event got cancelled the other night; hope to meet you in person when they reschedule it.

      Michael

      Reply
  10. Samantha White

    It’s very precise and clear, but even though I come from a biomedical research background and understand every word of it, I find it too much. I think that people who don’t know what it means would be overwhelmed. Why not pare it down to, “I’m a scientific writer. I write biomedical research documents for clients to submit to professional journals.”

    And Michael, if there’s an interview with you on Word of Mouth, please let me know when and how I can hear it! Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Theresa Singleton

      Thanks Samantha! I appreciate your input. And I know what you mean — it was sounding like a mouthful to me. I like what you have, but I’m revising it to this: “I’m a scientific writer. I write research articles for clients for submission to biomedical journals.”

      Reply
    2. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Samantha,

      We’ve got an entire webinar on the topic, in fact. I’m sure I’ll run it again at some point during the year so stay tuned!

      Michael

      Reply
  11. Samantha White

    Theresa, I love it! Now if I could get you to edit mine . . . . . 🙂

    Getting it short is the challenge, and the prize, I’d say. I’m going to use yours as a model for getting mine as short and direct as possible. Thanks for sharing it.

    Reply
    1. Theresa Singleton

      Samantha, this may be going in a slightly different direction, but perhaps it can lead the way to new ideas. “I’m a Life Coach. My keen listening skills allow me to guide the personal growth of my clients.”

      Reply
      1. Samantha White

        Wow, that is a different tack. I like the terms “guide” and “personal growth.” I’ll work with those. “Listening skills” are key, of course, and I need to remember they are my tools. Thank you very much, Theresa!

        Reply
        1. Samantha White

          “I’m a Life Coach. I guide people going through particularly difficult life challenges, to use them for personal growth.”

          Am I getting closer?

          Michael, I’m looking forward to the webinar and all your offerings. This has me really inspired to move forward.

          Reply
  12. Christine Thomas

    I am a Virtual Assistant. I help my clients take things off their To-Do list.

    Seems almost too short…?
    In my branding, I use more creative play on words, but I agree that in conversation, I don’t want to appear “cutesy”.

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I think that’s perfectly fine, Christine. Simple, clear, easy to remember. Being remember, rather than being impressive, is what the answer to this question is all about!

      Reply
      1. Michael Katz Post author

        Wow, you mean this stuff actually works ? 🙂

        On a related note, after this post was published, somebody got in touch with me regarding Michelle Morris, who I mentioned as an example of someone who “specializes in helping single women make sense of their money and their taxes.” Keep it simple and people will seek you out!

        Reply
  13. Samantha White

    Seeing all the well-worded responses people have come up with has made me want to try again, to get it better (I hope):

    “I’m a personal Life Coach. I help people navigate difficult personal crises.”

    Or else, “I’m a personal Life Coach. I counsel people through difficult personal crises.”

    If I were going to add to that, I might say, “Sort of like a psychotherapist, except that my clients don’t have to be mentally ill to make use of my services.”

    Feedback, please? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Samantha!

      That works, but it feels (more or less) like a definition of what a coach is/does. Do you work with a particular type of person (middle-aged men; dissatisfied employees?) in a particular type of situation (divorce, bankruptcy?)? Or whatever. The more you can narrow the target and situation, the easier it is for you to become the go-to person in that area.

      Michael

      Reply
  14. Garry Worger

    “I turn Baby Boomers into sore losers.”
    Everyone does a double-take and says “whaaaat?”.
    They surely do pay attention.
    I just got “turned on” to your site. Looking forward to the newsletter.

    Reply

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