“What do you do?”

by Michele on April 19, 2012

How solopreneurs can answer "What do you do?"What is it about this one question that throws most of us for a loop? Why is it so hard to answer, and why does it cause such angst? It should be straightforward – simply tell someone in one sentence what you do – but rarely is it so easy. Part of the problem is that a lot of solopreneurs do a lot of different things for a lot of different people, and while there may be common threads, it’s hard to group it all under one phrase and convey the full breadth and depth of what we help people with. Most of us care so deeply about our work that to try to sum it up in one sentence feels like we’re negating the value of what we do.

I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this because I was in a lively discussion on the topic last week and I thought most of what people suggested would not work for me if I heard it when I asked someone what they did.

The criteria used by most of the people in the discussion was whether or not the person you were talking to asked a follow up question after you answered “What do you do?” The follow up could be anything such as “How do you do that?” or “Who do your work with?”

This isn’t a bad start to evaluate how effective your one-sentence answer is, but it’s too simplistic. Yes, you want someone to be interested enough to ask for more information, but the fact that they ask a question doesn’t mean they are actually interested. Yes, I know that’s harsh but it’s true. It’s like when someone says “Guess who I saw today?” – I may or may not care depending on who says it and the setting, but since I want to be polite and not hurt people’s feelings, I’ll almost always respond appropriately by saying “Who?” My response is not an guarantee that I’m interested.

It’s the same with your one-sentence business description. Just because it invites a response or question doesn’t mean you hit the mark. There are at least a few different reasons that someone would respond in a socially appropriate manner, and not all of them mean the person is interested.

The discussion started with someone describing an answer he heard at a networking event and most of the comments agreed that this answer was one of the best. When asked what she did, this woman said “I help mature women to look as attractive as possible.” While I agree this is a great way to describe the benefit of working with her, it still doesn’t tell me what she DOES. If I heard this, my mind would be flipping through pictures trying to make a match – is she a make-up artist, stylist, hairdresser, skin care expert, plastic surgeon, Botox practitioner or something else?

A lot of people maintain both in this setting and in marketing that the benefit is what matters and that people don’t care how you get there. I would say that the benefit is the most important, but I can’t be the only one who thinks that how you deliver it is also really important. Why is it important to me? In this case, it will dictate how much time I invest in seeing if we should get to know each other better. If she is a plastic surgeon, there’s not a great fit for me because I don’t know anyone who has plans to get surgery and in my entire life nobody has ever asked me for information or a referral on this topic. It would actually be a disservice to her to take up her time when there are people in the room she’d be better off meeting. If she is a make-up artist who mixes her own chemical-free, cruelty-free cosmetics well then I’m interested because that’s something I’d consider using and I know a lot of people who would also be interested.

My follow up question would be something like “So, um, what do you actually do? Are you a make-up artist?” In my mind, I’d be thinking about how hard this person is making it on me to get the answer to a straightforward question. It would also put them way down on my list of people I’d consider referring business to. Do you communicate this vaguely with clients? Will people I send you have to work as hard as I did to get a question answered?

So, what’s the answer? My current thought is that it’s best to include what you DO along with the benefit you provide, such as “I’m a stylist who specializes in helping mature women look as attractive as possible.” That way, you give someone a full picture that includes everything they need to decide if they want to learn more. I know I’d appreciate being answered in this way!

PS – If you go to networking events or want to start going, check out this free training by Sales and Networking Expert Don Talbert did just for my community: “3 Strategies for Really Working a Networking Event to Create a Continuous Flow of Leads, Referrals and Business.” Grab the audio here: Networking training call


  1. I totally agree! We need to hear what people do that can BENEFIT us not just some title a school certificate gave us. bravo!

    1. Michele says:

      Thanks Angel!

  2. I agree, I am an etiquette coach so if I were to answer the “what do you do question” with I teach etiquette I get the oh answer, but if I tailor my answer to target my audience then the reaction is different

    1. Michele says:

      Jules, I can totally see how you would get the “oh” answer without any more info – your service is useful but most people probably don’t know that until it is pointed out. Targeting to who you talking to, the setting or who you’d like to be working with is a great idea.

  3. Recently I realized I needed to change my elevator speech when someone at a networking event responded by asking me if I was a handyman. That’s a far cry from the business strategist that I am. I will likely add that in and see how it lands with the potential clients I am talking to.

    Scott D
    Scott D Lewis
    Cornerstones Coaching & Consulting

    Sign up for my free email mini-course:
    Seven Surprising Strategies to Get More Stuff Done

    1. Michele says:

      Thanks for the story Scott! I’ve had similar experiences where something I said didn’t put the picture I wanted in the other person’s head. That’s why I do think it’s good to add some sort of title along with the benefit when stating what you do.

  4. Peggy says:

    This is a very timing post for me, Michele… I have had people become confused over my one-sentence description of what I do; so I am obviously missing the mark… This is very helpful insight into what I should be including if my goal is Networking….

    Peggy Lusk, CPA
    Abundance by Design
    Get your free report: “The Relationship Between Time and Money”

    1. Michele says:

      Thanks Peggy! I think everyone struggles with their one-sentence description. I know I do!

  5. MaryAnne says:

    Oy — I agree. I made the mistake, when trying out different approaches to introducing myself and was asked — yes but what do you DO?? It clarified what I had to clarify!!

    1. Michele says:

      MaryAnne, I’ve had the same thing happen to me. It was a little frustrating to work on something and have it still not be clear, but you are right it does make it obvious what needs to change.

  6. Jody England says:

    This is a great article. Just came from a business conference where the prevailing wisdom was to get someone to ask you that second question. As a really straight forward person that feels manipulative and indirect. I’d rather just say what I do and you can decide if you are interested!
    “I’m an intuitive and energy coach that helps women entrepreneurs solve problems in their business.”
    Do I need any tweaks?

    Jody England
    Intuitive Business Coach
    Get the Question Marks out of your Business

    1. Michele says:

      Jody, I love your answer! I can tell from your comment we think alike so it’s not surprising that I like your answer. One comment I heard from my mentor when I was working on my own 1-sentence answer is not to use the word “help.” Nobody wants to feel like they need “help” and it’s not something that somebody would feel excited about buying. My own gut response is that it is not strong enough for what you do. It’s kind of a non-descript word, and I feel like your work is bold, barrier-breaking and empowering to your clients. An easy tweak might be to substitute guide or teach, or to even say “… coach that gets women get past business barriers so they can have the level of success they dream of.” I do believe though, that the best sentence to use is the one that works best when you try it out, so let me know what you end up with!

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