“So…what do you do?”

I used to hate this question. But not because I didn’t have an answer that I thought would earn me respect. I’ve spent the majority of my career working for large companies that have name brand recognition and would generally get the “oh that’s pretty impressive effect.”

But I hated this question because I never felt like my answer really represented what I did and what I wanted to do. I had a sterile answer that would get me sterile responses. It never felt right.

Then one day in a marketing class at business school, I put it together: my message was horrible. We were doing a case study about brand messaging and identifying ways to improve the message. We were working on creating language that the customer would resonate with, understanding their needs, and package it up in a simple, memorable way.

It occurred to me that answering the question “what do you do” or “tell me about yourself” would be so much more effective if I approached it like a brand messaging exercise. If I wanted the best opportunities and to make the most of every connection, I needed to have a strong, memorable message.

I changed my message and all of a sudden I was making connections, naturally. Which for someone who hates cheesy networking, this was a big win.

I met someone on a flight, gave them my story, and two days later I was on the phone for a job interview I had scored purely through that connection. I met someone while I was waiting to cross the street and they offered to introduce me to another person they thought would have great advice for me.

Now I have a strong message that I use and adapt for every situation. Meeting my seatmate on the plane? I know exactly what to say. Introduced to a friend of a friend? I’ve got that one covered. And you know what? Having a strong message not only opens doors, it makes me feel that much better about who I am, what I do, and what my future holds.

Crafting different elements of your message can be a big exercise, but we’ll get started today with just a few steps to help spice up your answer for the next time someone asks “so what do you do?”

Before we jump in, keep in mind a few golden rules of messaging:

  • Keep it short: attention spans are short, don’t give them a chance to zone out
  • Make it clear: no acronyms or jargon. Don’t be that person
  • Make it memorable: if I forgot what you said 30 seconds later, it wasn’t great

Ready? Here are 4 tactics to help you get started crafting the right message to open doors:

Tactic 1: Start with a basic recipe

You want your message to be adaptable to the situation and the person you’re speaking with, rather than just memorizing a cookie cutter response. To create a message that’s adaptable but still includes all the important information, I like to start with a messaging recipe.

The core of your message will include: “I help (who do you help?)  by doing (how do you help them?) so that (why is this important?).”

For example, “I help brands maximize their digital marketing by using analytics around all key digital strategies such as SEO, adwords, and social media, to optimize performance so they can reach their customers and increase their sales profitably.”

Tactic 2: Make it memorable

Sometimes the recipe in tactic 1 is all you want to lead with, say when you’re meeting someone casually for the first time. But the recipe in tactic 1 is a perfect lead in for the other person to ask for more information.

If you’re talking to a future employer or in a situation that requires more information, you’ll use this tactic 2 to make it more personable, relatable, and most importantly, memorable by adding in a story or an anecdote, and a couple of compelling highlights.

You can make it really personal by connecting a story from your past to what you’re doing now, or you can paint a (quick) picture of a fun highlight about your current role that will catch their attention. Anyone can throw buzzwords or acronyms around, but no one is going to remember or care about a bullet point list of your accomplishments, so steer clear of that.

For example:

“I didn’t initially intend to get into this field but as I was working on a marketing launch, I noticed that a huge chunk of our budget was going to digital marketing but we didn’t have a way to accurately understand how that affected our sales. I created tools for my team to use to track and optimize our campaign performance. After using them during the launch we saved approximately $50k, which helped boost our overall profitability significantly. Since then I’ve taken my process and rolled it out to teams all over the company.”

Tactic 3: Tailor it to your audience

Surprise! Your message is not about you. Like any good marketing message, your message is about the customer and how you can help them.

In a job interview or when you’re speaking with someone from a company you’d really like to work for, you likely know some of the pain points they are experiencing that they need someone to step in and solve for them. Rather than leave your message vague while trying to be everything to everyone, highlight a couple of your past experiences that demonstrate that you’re exactly what they’re looking for.

For example, if they have a really fragmented department and they’re looking for someone who will not just do the job but create a highly functioning team, you might say:

“In focusing on our analytics I also had the opportunity to build an entire team from the ground up. I focused on bringing in the right combination of skill sets and helped create open communication from day 1, which really led to one of the most productive and functional team environments.”

Tactic 4: What’s next?

If you’re looking for a new career opportunity (or perhaps you’re speaking to a potential employer), you’ll want to finish your story with a glimpse of what’s next. What are your goals and what is the next step that you’re looking for at this point in your career?

If you’re networking, for example, you’d want to emphasize exactly what you’re looking for by saying:

“I’m now really focused on finding a future opportunity within a startup or fast growing small company, that needs to improve their ROI in the digital space and create a strong team, but do so quickly and with a limited budget.”

Use these tactics to mix & match the right response based on who you’re speaking to and what environment you’re speaking in.

For example, if you’re talking casually to someone you just met and they ask you what you do, your response in tactic 1 with the basic recipe, may be enough to get a conversation going.

Networking your way to a career transition? Combine the recipe in tactic 1 with what’s next in tactic 4 to let them know where you are and where you plan to go.

Speaking to a future employer who wants to know more about you? You could combine tactics 1-4 for a really comprehensive story, making sure to edit it down for length.

So now let me ask you: what do you do?

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