How do you answer the question …

“What do you do?”

This is a question that many people struggle with and getting the answer right is ever more pressing as networking events are increasingly popular aspects of business these days. It is also a question that is being asked in the on-line world of LinkedIn.

Add to this the situation where you might be commenting in a discussion thread on LinkedIn where you want to communicate what you do as well as contributing information to the discussion topic. This requires a more subtle approach where you are effectively answering a question that has not actually been asked but may be implied in the original discussion topic.

In answering decide what effect you want to create – just answering, commencing a conversation, or perhaps the very early stages of starting to prospect for business.

Here we provide a few tips on the way you might respond to the question “What do you do?

Context. It is very important that you consider the context in which the question is being asked. For example, if you are at a conference where the topic is data security on mobile devices, it is reasonable to assume all attendees will have an interest in some aspect of that topic. This should be used as a guide and your answer should focus on what you do in the context of the conference topic/focus. Be aware of course, that if you are a supplier in that field, you maybe conversing with a competitor.

You also need to be aware of other contextual factors that might help you provide a meaningful answer. For example; it may leave the other person cold if they come from a banking background and you tell them all about what you do in the shipping industry.

Clues. Under context I provided a couple of examples of information that might condition your answer; conference subject matter and the industry of the person asking the question. These and other clues can help you make the answer meaningful and personalised. Some other examples are; location, company size, job role of the person asking.

If you know the location of the person asking you can include in your answer a word of two that positions you as having a footprint in the area or understanding specific regional issues and challenges. Being aware of the size of the enquirer’s company means you can further personalise your answer demonstrating that you understand the challenges of; start-ups, SMEs, global or public companies. In crafting your answer, knowing the other party’s job role is also very useful; a CIO and FD are each likely to have their own perspective (field of interest) which your response should address.

Tips to build your own answers:

  • Decide on the tone you want to adopt; formal/informal, serious/humorous, provocative, audacious, etc.
  • In an attempt to be clear, people try to provide so much information that their message is lost because it becomes too complicated. Keep it short, sharp and sweet.
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms, or big words. You may think it sounds smart but in many cases it will be a turn-off. Beware of acronyms in particular; their interpretation may not be the one you intended. Simple is better and less is more are good guides to keep in the back of your mind.
  • Avoid drivel such as “I have a passion to understand your pain points so before answering may I ask you …?. Much too Uriah Heep-ish!
  • Avoid words such as unique or claims such as “we are the leading …”unless you can prove it. I once met someone at an event who turned the standard company message into a point of humour which proved to be a great conversation starter. I asked what he did and he replied “We are one of the top 5 … this of course means we are fifth!
  • Avoid making unsubstantiated claims such as we save time and money. Unless you absolutely know you can do this in every case it is a dangerous claim to make when you do not know their circumstances; even if it is true it is unlikely to sound very credible to someone you have just met.
  • When thinking about your answer it is good to have it in mind as a newspaper headline or a tweet – you have limited space to get your point over. What you say in answering the question is a very high level summary of what you would say if you have 30 minutes to answer the question but typically; if you can’t answer in 30 seconds you probably can’t answer in 30 minutes either. Your answer should work at every level.
  • James Potter (The Linked In Man) recommends that you effectively answer this question in what you say about yourself in the headline of your professional profile on LinkedIn. This makes the information available with any contributions you make on LinkedIn.
  • Remember they have asked you what you do. They may be asking just to be polite or they may really want to know so whatever you choose to say it must attempt to address the what. Even if it was just a polite conversation piece you may have the opportunity to turn it into something valuable for both parties so make sure your answer piques the interest that may be lying dormant. To achieve this, your answer could tell them ‘what you do for them’ in terms of the results you have achieved for others in a similar circumstance.
  • You need to be concise and try to structure your answer so that it is the beginning not the end of the conversation. If you are able to answer what but preface with some how that will help to create the impression that you are someone they should have a longer conversation with. For example; “We do … and, as a result, our SME customers typically gain … improvement in customer satisfaction”. By focusing on the potential outcomes gained it is less likely to sound like a generic answer. You have managed to tell them what you do, the type of customers you work for and the benefits they have gained from working with you.
  • The key is to be brief, show your value, and open up a conversation. One way to open up the conversation is to follow the answer you have provided, such as that in the previous point, with an open question such as “How do you measure customer satisfaction in your business?

Here are a few examples of ways you might consider structuring your answer:

  • “I work with [your ideal/typical customers] who want more [result types] with less [resource types]”
  • “I [action verb] for [target market] so they can [benefit].”
  • “I [action] for [your ideal/typical customers] who [cause/impact] to [effect/result]”
  • “You are familiar with [the problem], well I [what you do] so that [the value you provide].”

All of these will be more useful to both parties when built around the concept of Feature : Benefit : Incentive and followed by an open question, for example;

Customers that use our [what you do/feature] typically gain from improvements in [what they gain/benefit] leading to [what that gain helps them to achieve/incentive]. How do you handle/manage/support [what you do/feature]?

First published on LinkedIn Pulse