How to Say What You Do
“So, what do you do?”
It is a question we often get. It is a foundational moment that plays out at the beginning of getting to know one another. How you answer provides information about your professional life and who you are as a person. Your answer creates a frame for how others perceive you. Warm versus cold. Approachable versus aloof. People-oriented versus egocentric.
When answering the question, most people use the following framework:
“I’m a [job title] at [name of organization]. We work in [expert expressions / jargon].”
Example: “I’m a program director at the Smith Foundation. We work to advance immigrant justice and integration.”
This short sentence is full of titles, institutional names, and jargon.
Imagine if you said this to a ten-year-old. How would she feel?
What is a program director? What is a foundation? What is “advancing environmental justice?”
There is a child in every adult. It oversees emotional response.
Here is an alternative “plain language framework” for answering the question “what do you do?”:
Framework for Saying What You Do
- I work at a [easy-to-understand organization type, for example, “nonprofit”].
- I/we work together with… [name the people whom you serve]
- My/our goal is to help them…
- What’s unique about my/our approach is that… [hint at your unique approach].
“I work with an organization that helps immigrants who come to the US. We work with documented and undocumented immigrants. Our goal is to help all of them build a safe home in a welcoming community, get good jobs and be able to stay together with their loved ones. Our secret sauce is putting them into the driver’s seat. For example, half of the people on our board are immigrants, which ensures that they set the direction of our work.”
Let’s first do a hearing analysis, listening to these two versions side by side (est.io/2k5). Please continue reading after you have heard the audio.
The Hearing Analysis makes it clear that the second version sounds more interesting, likable, and easier to understand.
It expresses your work through people, things you do, and goals you hope to accomplish.
All of this is about making an approachable and warm first impression.
By talking about what you do, and together with whom you do it and why, you paint a picture of what you do, rather than summing it up in abstract and institutional words. Whenever we talk as if describing a picture, or a scene in a movie, we become easier to understand.
We also often perceive people who talk to us in plain English as having a certain, “no-nonsense” confidence. It is the confidence of people who know that what they do speaks for itself.
- Describing your actions, the people you help, and your goals paints an engaging and easy-to-understand picture of what you do.
- Using plain language when introducing yourself and your work creates a frame of accessibility, empathy, and humanity.
- Using simple, easy-to-understand language conveys your confidence.
- Write down a script introducing yourself based on the plain-language framework in this chapter.
- Use Hearing Analysis to refine the script.
- Try out the new approach in a real-world speaking situation and afterwards reflect on what it felt like.