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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

How to Explain Your Job to Relatives Who Just Mastered Posting a Facebook Status

family talking on computer

The holidays are coming, and so are the questions about what you do from relatives—clueless, curious, and caring, alike.

“What do you do again?” might be the most common question you field as you’re passing around slices of pie.

So, how do you describe your job to your family in a way that they’ll not only understand, but also respect?

The worst thing you could say is “It’s complicated.” Or, “No one ever understands what I do.”

One: It’s lazy to give up so easily on describing your position. Two: This is a great opportunity to work on your elevator pitch. Because these won’t be the last people who look dumbfounded by your job description.

1. Get Into Their Heads

If they don’t understand you, it’s because you don’t understand them.

There’s a way to describe almost anything to anyone, but you need to know your audience to know where to even begin. By assessing a few simple things, you can present your information in a way that’s meaningful to them.

First, determine what level of interest this family member has. Is it an uncle with whom you’ve had many soulful, in-depth conversations? Or is it a cousin who’s just being nice and only asking questions during commercial breaks?

Once you know who you’re talking to, you can decide which version of your pitch you’re going to use. Short and simple—or shorter and simpler.

For every instance, your introductory line could consist of one concise sentence that answers these three questions: What do you do? For whom? And how?

For example: “I do marketing for an engineering company using email.”

No, this doesn’t explain everything, but it explains enough for someone who’s simply asking to be polite.

2. Take Their Temp

It’s challenging to get a baseline reading of how savvy someone is without coming off as wildly condescending. But, there are a couple great questions to ask to get a sense of a person’s knowledge level without making him or her feel dumb.

For starters, take responsibility for your relative’s education. Ask him if the two of you have talked about your field before? Or, you can also ask if he’s heard about a recent trend related to your industry, or even a related news story that went viral. Those are all great places to start.

If he has no clue what you’re even referring to, he’ll probably let you enlighten him. If he responds with not only information on your field, but also an opinion—then you know that you don’t have to start with, “So, OK, email marketing is like those flyers you get in your mailbox…”

3. Tell a Story

Everyone loves a good story—they’re easier to listen to and they help contextualize the work that we do.

So rather than attempt to describe your daily routine, talk about a recent win. For example, when I used to book and produce satellite media tours for network talent, no one really got it. However, when I told them about one of my exciting recent projects, they were engaged. I particularly liked using my Paul McCartney example.

When ABC needed his help promoting a special on his band Wings, they sent him to the firm I worked for so that we could book and produce all those promotional interviews he did. (This also gave me the opportunity to humble-brag that I worked with Paul McCartney. Win-win.)

4. Break it Down

Pretend like you’re explaining your job to a five-year-old. Trust me, you’ll have relatives who are actually less savvy than this. (Have you seen a kindergartner use an iPad lately?)

For example, let’s say you work in online advertising. Instead of rolling your eyes and reducing your job to “I sell ad space,” you can go with this:

I’m the middleman between companies that are looking to advertise and sites that have advertising space. So, if Company X is launching a campaign to promote its holiday sale, I’ll match it with an online publication that writes about shopping.

See, not so hard!

You might be surprised, going forward, how often you draw on these simplified elevator pitches. Your aunt who still uses a flip phone isn’t the only one who doesn’t get it. No one’s an expert on everything. From time to time, even the most tech-advanced among us may need you to break it down.

Let me know how it works out for you around the holiday table this year. Are these conversations about what you do easier with these tactics? Do you have have different tactics? Tweet me and let me know.