So, what do you do?
Like so many other people, I dread this question. But, the reason behind my trepidation isn’t necessarily what you’d expect. I don’t loathe this conversation starter because I dislike talking about how I make a living—in reality, it’s one of my favorite topics.
What’s the problem, then? Well, I get frustrated with the glazed over look of confusion that without fail washes over everybody’s face as soon as I start chatting about my day job.
The rest of the conversation usually plays out like this:
Me: “I work for myself as a freelance writer.”
Confused Conversational Partner: “Oh, so you, like, write books?”
That’s usually followed up with more unintentionally condescending questions about how I manage to make any money and why I’m qualified to dole out career advice when I don’t have a “traditional” job.
I’ll admit it: It’s irritating. When you’re so passionate about something like your career, you want other people to not only understand what you spend your workdays doing, but share your same enthusiasm.
But, take it from me, that’s tough to pull off. Fortunately, throughout years of trying to justify and make sense of my career path for the benefit of unsuspecting strangers, I’ve identified some tried and true tips that’ll not only adequately explain what you do—but get people interested as well.
1. Find Something Relatable
When you’re attempting to explain any sort of concept that isn’t second nature, it’s always helpful to find a way that you can relate it to something else that person has a better understanding of or an experience they’ve already had. This same rule applies when sharing what you do for work.
For me, that often involves presenting an anecdote to people. “Let’s say you have a job interview coming up, and you’re doing Googling advice about how to respond to common interview questions,” I’ll say, “Those articles you find in your search results? That’s the sort of thing I write!”
Or, my husband—who works as an actuary—will often compare his rigorous exam process to that of a CFA or even a doctor, which are career fields people typically have a more solid grasp on.
There are tons of ways that you can break your career down into more relatable and digestible concepts and steps. Find what works for you, and you’re sure to be surprised by how much it increases people’s understanding of what you do day in and day out.
2. Skip the Nitty-Gritty Details
You’re passionate about your career, which means you could blabber on about it for hours. But, the people who are asking this question of you? More often than not, they’re doing so as a friendly way of starting a conversation. Their aim is to get a basic understanding of your role—not to walk away with a comprehensive description of your daily tasks and responsibilities.
While it can be tempting to dive into all of the minor and insignificant details that you think are crucial to getting a comprehensive grasp on what you do, make it your goal to glaze over those and instead give the meat and potatoes description.
That person really doesn’t need to know that your degree is actually in an irrelevant field or that you attend the board meeting every other quarter. That needless minutiae only adds confusion—and ultimately loses the interest of your audience.
If people are highly intrigued by your role and want to roll up their sleeves to uncover more details, trust me, they’ll let you know.
3. Show Instead of Tell
Whether it’s a business presentation or a kindergarten classroom, you already know that showing is far more powerful than telling. So, why not leverage that same principle when explaining your career?
If there are opportunities for you to literally show what you do—rather than simply explaining it—take advantage of those!
For me, that typically involves pulling out my phone and doing a quick Google search, showing people an article, or even showcasing my website. Not only is it more engaging than my endless rambling, but it also helps to add some much-needed clarity.
This won’t be doable in every circumstance. But, challenge yourself to think of ways that you can enlighten people about your job, without so much talking. It’s bound to be more helpful—not to mention more exciting.
There are some jobs that require almost no additional explanation. Saying you’re a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or firefighter, for example, doesn’t need much follow-up.
But, then there are some career paths that need a little more elaboration and clarification—which is often easier said than done.
The next time you’re met with that classic, “What do you do?” question, try implementing one (or all three!) of these tips. They’re sure to help you stave off those glazed over looks of boredom and explain your career in a way that’s both informative and interesting.
Photo of people talking courtesy of Martin Barraud/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. In addition to writing for The Muse, she's also the Career Editor for The Everygirl, a columnist for Inc., and a contributor all over the web. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her rescued terrier mutt or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author