Mighty Life List
Mar 17 2014

Your Personal Pitch: 3 Tips for Answering “What do you do?”


Image by Robert Lindstrom

“You sound unemployed.”

A friend said this to me once, in real life. I refrained from shoving him because he was right.

He’d been standing next to me when someone asked what I did for a living, and I couldn’t move my tongue out of the way to answer. I stammered about how I was in a career transition, entering a field that wasn’t well defined, understood, respected. I felt ridiculous calling myself a blogger, insecure saying I was a writer, grandiose claiming I was small business owner. And then I presumably downed half a gin gimlet and cleared my throat.

In short, I knew what I was doing with my career, but I couldn’t navigate a cocktail party. I didn’t know my personal pitch.

Developing a Personal Pitch

We use words to define and alter our realities, especially in how we characterize our work. When you’re in business for yourself, no one hands you a title, so the process needs to be more intentional.

My friend pointed out that I was doing cool things, but freezing up when someone asked, “What do you do?” It was certainly true then, and over the years I’ve had to rethink my response several times. Today, when people ask about my work there are lots of options. I write a blog. I host a conference. I run a community. So I’ve decided to say, “I own a media company,” and go from there.

The SAP Pitch

If you’re running into the same problem, I’ve developed some guidelines and a terrible pun that can help. When someone asks what you do, your pitch should be SAPpy:

1. Succinct

One phrase or sentence is plenty. If the person is interested in your work, you’ve provided an entry point for questions. If they aren’t, you have a socially acceptable answer ready, one that doesn’t reveal insecurities or force the other person to listen while you reason through your career. The alternative is watching someone’s eyes glaze over as you yammer on about how you’re “not sure whether you can call yourself an artist yet… though you have done paid work… but it’s not at a level where you could support yourself or anything…”

Check, please.

2. Aspirational

Yes, you can call yourself an artist, or a writer, or a business owner, even if you haven’t met your internal standards of what those phrases mean yet. If your intention is to be an artist, just say it. You can offer more detailed information as the conversation moves along.

“What do you do?”
“I’m an artist.”
“Oh! Have you shown in any galleries I might know?”
“Oh no! I’m just starting out, applying to schools and painting between my cash jobs.”

And side note, if you are actually unemployed right now, the answer is “I’m looking for work in accounting,” or “I’m a freelance developer,” or “I’m a DJ.”

3. Positive

Your pitch shouldn’t contain any words that diminish your work. Don’t say you run a “small” salon, or that you’re an “aspiring” singer. Don’t say you’re “just” a mom, or demur when someone tries to express enthusiasm about your work. What’s more, don’t highlight a job you took to pay the bills, and describe your real interest as a hobby. If you say, “I’m a bartender. Sometimes I take photos of all the crazy people at the bar,” then people will ask if you’re available to tend bar at their next party. If you say, “I’m a photographer, I like night-life subjects,” then someone may ask to see your work. Highlight the type of work you’d like to attract, not what you do to make rent.

Take those three guidelines into account and come up with a pitch that puts the best possible spin on your career. With any luck, you’ll need to revise every few months to incorporate all the good stuff that comes your way.

These concepts were part of my entrepreneurship keynote at Square‘s Open for Business. I’ll be fleshing out more points from my talk here this week.

32 Responses to “Your Personal Pitch: 3 Tips for Answering “What do you do?””

  • Veronica Says:

    This reminds me of the great scene in the movie Frances Ha.

    Frances is asked a conventional question by some dinner party guests:

    “What do you do?”

    “It’s kind of hard to explain,” Frances answers.

    “Because what you do is complicated?”

    “Because I don’t really do it,” she says.

  • Maggeh Says:

    Ugh. I love that movie.

  • Michelle @ Bolted Vintage Says:

    THE GRAMMAR NAZIS ARE COMING, THE GRAMMAR NAZIS ARE COMING.

    *succinct*

    (sorry! card carrying member of the Loud and Proud Pedant Club)

  • Maggeh Says:

    Haha. I corrected it as you were making the comment. Someone on Facebook beat you to it. I go copy blind after spending a couple hours on something, but it’s no less mortifying being an editorial staff of one. I’m losing my game, Michelle.

  • Kristen Says:

    This is useful, thanks. I struggle with this a lot.

  • Sarahmia Says:

    As a plumber was leaving my house recently he waved his hand dismissively at my laptop as he said “I’ll leave you to get back to your “computer stuff” “.

    Internally I thought “it’s not “computer stuff” – this is my JOB” but externally I just smiled awkwardly and ushered him out a bit quicker. Explaining I am a freelancer is easy, explain half of the things I freelance for – not so much. I need to be more “I’m a marketer” and less “oh, you know, internet things. *awkward face*”

  • misstraceynolan Says:

    I was distracted reading this because all these bells kept *dinging* in my head. Ding! Ding! Ding! You nailed it.

  • gillian Says:

    What a fantastically useful article. I often say in Italian when chatting with the grocer, plumber, barista….”sempre al computer” always at the computer because it is simpler than my usual Frances Ha-like answer that I often stammer out in English. (Love that film and comment!) This post makes me realize I need to boil it down in my native tongue too.

  • Michelle @ Bolted Vintage Says:

    Gotcho back gurl.

  • Beth Says:

    This is such great advice for me right now because at the moment my answer is: “I’m just an unemployed mom who used to have an interesting career in aviation but I haven’t worked in years because I stayed home to take care of my kids while they were little but when they went to school my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and I nursed her through that pretty much full time for two years until she died last spring. What do you do?”

  • Maggeh Says:

    Beth. Slow clap. You have a great sense of humor.

    I’m so sorry about your mom. Have you read The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch? I talk about him a lot, but he’s a poet and an undertaker, and he makes a solid case for why we need to be better about caring for each other as we die. I haven’t been in that position yet, but I have a lot of respect for what you did.

  • jenny Says:

    “I’m a DJ.”

    You’re hilarious and this is brilliance. Thanks, Maggie!

  • Lori Says:

    This is so very useful and timely — thank you. I’m a chronic yammerer because of all the different things I do, and I need to find a good way to narrow it down to one succinct statement. Any tips for people who do two different things? I’m a book editor and an artist.

  • Jenn Says:

    Great post! Beth, oh my gosh, please share your SAPpy answer when you come up with one.

    I feel like I’ve been doing the whole “Oh, well I was trained as a physicist …” or “It’s kind of evolving right now …” because saying “I am a stay at home mom” keeeeeeeeeelllllls me. I watched Anne Marie Slaughter’s TED talk recently and was convicted of my lack of appreciation for the role of care giver.

    As an aside, what do you care givers out there call your work? That? Homemaker? Housewife/stay at home mom are just not summing it up appropriately.

  • Meg Says:

    You are a damn genius.

  • Beth Says:

    Thanks, Maggie. I will check out Thomas Lynch.

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  • Kelly Says:

    Thank you so much for this! I have been struggling with this for the almost 6 years I’ve been in my current job. I have a very succinct and understandable job title in the world of academic research. Problem is – I don’t actually *do* what most people assume someone with that title would do, because I essentially work for a start-up. I came up with something to say at conferences but I’m going to take your SAPpy advice and rework my pitch before my next big meeting ;-)

  • Michelle Says:

    Such good advice! I used to host professional community-building events, and it was always so disappointing to hear awesome people selling themselves short or otherwise not properly representing their awesomeness.

  • sera Says:

    This is fantastic. I really need to work on this. Do you have any advise for branding a “jane-of-all-trades” admin type person that is looking for work while I try to figure out what focus I need to take? I’m interested in too many creative things without having the education, experience or expertise in any one thing. Sadly, right now, I just need a decent JOB that will pay the bills while I sort these things out.

  • Andrea Cordonier Says:

    Am I the only person on the planet who hasn’t seen “Frances Ha”? (That was a great line). I think your points are well-made.

    I find it so tiresome that in North America the first words out of most peoples’ mouths after an introduction is “What do you do?” In Europe, that’s considered rude. It’s our culture to define ourselves by our employment, to whip out our titles like swords, to confront the person we’re trying to converse with in a frenzy of comparison, to the death. See: http://www.habicurious.com/?p=2598

    You’d think, judging by this obsession, that only employed people are interesting (or valid). It’s nuts.

    It takes courage and inner-grounding to dance to the beat of your own drummer. But I think it’s worth it.

  • Michelle Says:

    Lori,
    Your last sentence is perfect! 7 words is succinct. And people can follow up with whichever topic is more interesting to them, or ask how you do both. How do you do both?

  • Francine from Callaloo Soup Says:

    I really needed to read this, it’s a such a struggle for. I especially need to work out what to say in French. I once told someone (in French), that I work at home, and she thought that I meant I was a housewife. And apparently, I also need to watch Francis Ha? :)

  • Lori Says:

    Thank you, Michelle. I spend so much time using the left brain on the editing that I need a right-brain outlet. You can keep only so much jewelry and such before you have to start giving it away, and once your family and friends say “enough already,” it’s time to start selling it. It’s turned into a nice side business, and has led to some opportunities to do some teaching and some speaking. The nice thing is that when the editing business is slow, that’s more time to spend in the studio making things. It’s a good balance. xo

  • Kate Says:

    Interesting advice. I understand a personal pitch would be important at professional events, and maybe cocktail parties are networking events for some, but talking to people at social events – I personally don’t really like the idea of having to sell yourself in that kind of forum. I’d rather allow the possibility of a deeper connection with someone, and just be honest (like Francis Ha). Not that having a clearer way of articulating what you are doing isn’t honest (and I don’t advocate talking down what you are doing – esp for women), but sometimes I think we paper over our uncertainties at our collective cost. If the person you’re talking to (in a purely social setting) is going to dismiss you because you’re real about the difficulties of being self-employed, is that a person you really want to bother spending time with? If instead your honesty reassures them and leads to a more open conversation, so much the better I would have thought. Aren’t failure and mistakes our best paths to learning anyway?

  • Maggie Mason Says:

    Jenn, I had trouble with this too. I like, “I keep our lives running.” Or “I’m raising the family.” Or “I’m the head of household.”

    Sera, I call that a “Gal Friday” or a “Right Hand Man” or in nerdy circles, a “Pepper Potts.”

    Andrea and Kate, in San Francisco most of the cocktail parties I go to are after-work events in an office or other professional context. Still, I don’t think of this as selling yourself, so much as taking into account your ambitions and accomplishments when your career is hard to define. It makes me feel confident to have an answer ready, regardless of whether someone could be a potential work contact.

    Also, while I do tend to be more candid than most, I disagree that one should hold uncertainties out for inspection by a total stranger. That type of vulnerability is admirable and brave in the context of a trusted circle, but can be tiresome and even manipulative when it comes to strangers.

    That said, at social events I ask people what their interests are instead of what they do for a living. About half the time they say, “You mean what do I do?” Which is funny, and sweetly American.

  • Ginger Morgan Says:

    Maggie Mason, God bless you a million times for your insights. I live in a community that plays “20 Questions”. If you refuse to play, you are just a bug crawling on the ground. Never part of the crowd. Being online gets me out of this stifling atmosphere. No one in this teeny burgh cares if I have an online shop or two, write, publish and sell books, or create original and sellable accessories. When I am able to ask someone what their interests are, and not what they do for a living, I get the answer, “You don’t really want to know or have time to hear it”. I tell them if I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t ask. Amazing how many are dumbfounded that someone would ask what they are ‘about’, and not .what they do, as if all doctors are the same, or all farmers. Sheesh!
    Loved this article and the comments!

  • alice Says:

    “I’m a DJ.”

    I love you.

  • Alanna Says:

    I can’t thank you enough for posting this! Off to write my SAPpy pitch and practice saying it with a straight face.

  • Melissa Says:

    What a fantastic post! I’d add that for the creative and/or non-traditional people in the world, this exercise has a lot of value beyond having something to say at parties. Forcing ourselves to articulate “what we’re about” in seven (or so) words makes us really think about how we see ourselves. There’s a world of difference between thinking of yourself as a bartender who takes pictures of customers and a photographer who enjoys night-life subjects!

    And when it comes to people asking what I do as a conversation-opener, I actually don’t mind it even at parties. I see it less as a less-personal way to get to know me than, “what do you do in your free time?” The latter is far more personal, IMO, and can lead to equally awkward judgments! If I have to answer it, I’ll gauge whether I want to deal with the disbelief of “you’re a gamer?!” or would rather just be bland and say, “I garden.” But “I’m a sculptor” or my old, “I’m a management consultant” lets me decide how personal I’m going to be.

  • Nicole Says:

    Awesome post. I like the media company line. I do a few things as well and have been trying to figure out how to pull it all together under one umbrella. Media company sounds about right. Blogging, freelance writing, community management, breast cancer advocate. Yes. Works. Thank you so much. (I love bloggers. We rock.)

  • Mithra Ballesteros Says:

    Thank you for this well written post. Love the acronym. It reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s excellent “Make Good Art” speech when he tells someone who is unsure of herself, to “pretend to be someone who can do it. Not pretend to do it. But pretend to be someone who can.” We are our harshest critics, and we must learn to shush that doubting inner voice.