6 Better Ways to Answer ‘What Do You Do?’

A few years ago at my mum’s 60th, one of my old school teachers spotted me through the crowd and made an alarming beeline. She pulled up a chair, narrowed her wrinkly eyes, canapé residue dripping from her lip. I knew what was coming. ‘So, what do you do?’ She bomb-dropped. How dare she, I thought. I was halfway through an Arts degree, I worked at a German bakery, and I was about three seconds into my first internship.

So really, I had no idea what I did. But somehow the words ‘I write’ rolled off my tongue. And when I say rolled, I mean stuttered. She blinked patiently for a very long time. I gave her nothing – bailing instead to bury my hands in the nearest esky I could find. Good one mate.

The truth is, what we do for a living doesn’t always define us. But it does account for a fair chunk of our identity. Some people are absolute guns at answering the question. Others, like me, would rather catch the next flight to Antarctica to avoid it. Over the years though, I’ve realised there are better ways to tackle this inescapable reality – without coming off as blunt, anxious or bumbling. Here are a few tips.

#1 Chat about how you help people

Yes. We can all be heroes. For example, you might be a copywriter. Or, you might be someone who helps brands and organisations tell great stories. Sounds way better right? That’s because it strips away any confusion or stereotypes about the job title and explains the value of what you do. Trust me, people lap up value. And it’s a great conversation starter too. So next time Grandma corners you at the family reunion, start with ‘I help people…’ and watch her eyes light up.

Blunt Talk GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

#2 Go beyond the job

When people ask you what you do, a lot of the time they’re just as interested in your passions and hobbies. Got a side hustle? Then talk about how your job supports this. You might be an accountant by day and a DJ by night. A bartender by night and a novelist by day. Don’t shy away from talking about non-work projects you’re involved in, charities you volunteer for, or business ideas you’ve got brewing. The more you put out there, the more you’ll get back.

#3 Tell a story

Everyone loves a good yarn. Think about a fun or inspiring story that sums up an aspect of what you do and let rip. That customer who ordered a large, ¾ latte with skim milk, extra hot, 1/8 shot of decaf please. That presentation you did that left your client wiping back tears and giving you an awkward slow clap. Whatever it might be, telling a story means you get to paint the picture, instead of the person you’re talking to coming to their own conclusions.

#4 Do some prep

If, like me, you’re awful at winging it, then there’s nothing wrong with doing a little prep. Try coming up with a few variations – whether it’s telling a story or talking about how you help people. While nobody’s watching, practice in front of the mirror. This tactic comes in real handy for job interviews, parties, dates or any situation where you’re dealing with strangers. But make sure you leave em’ hanging. You don’t want to give a 10-minute lecture complete with palm cards and dot points. Just keep it simple.

Zoolander GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

#5 Flip it

Sometimes it’s easier to reframe the question – posing it to your listener as a problem that needs solving. For example, ‘You know how a lot of young people struggle to find the right info on mental health?’ or ‘You know how some businesses can’t really explain what they do?’. It’s an engaging and relatable way of hooking people in. Your question should make them think, allowing you to go ahead and solve the problem you’ve put on the table.

#6 Bring down those walls

It’s easy to get defensive – especially when you don’t want to answer the question. But unless you’re as charming as Hugh Grant in About a Boy, you probably can’t get away with saying ‘I do nothing’. At the end of the day, people are just curious. Kind even. So when they drop the question, be open and honest. What brought you to this point? What dreams do you have for yourself? What are you scared of? What do your next steps look like? Who knows – the person you’re having a D&M with might be your next boss.

Doug Whyte is a freelance writer and copywriter. He’s worked in branding agencies, digital publishing and written a bunch of articles for a bunch of publications.