When you’re at a networking event, and someone asks “What do you do?”, do you feel uncomfortable? As you try to describe your role and your work, do you ever get the feeling that you really aren’t connecting with the person you’re meeting? Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be so good at engaging strangers effectively, and why it’s a challenge for you?
If you’re responding “yes” or even “sometimes” to the above questions, you’ve got plenty of company. Relatively few people are naturally good at establishing connections with strangers, but the good news is that anyone can learn simple techniques to get good at doing so.
Preparing yourself to answer the “What Do You Do?” question concisely, confidently, and with a clear purpose is one of the most important things you can do to to make your networking more effective. Whether you’re seeking a new job, someone to hire, a restaurant recommendation, or something else, a well-prepared self-introduction can establish rapport, communicate your value, and provide you with access to resources and assistance that you need for success.
A Typical Response, and Why It Is Not Effective
When asked “What do you do?”, most people reflexively state their job title, their employer, and sometimes the number of years they’ve done the job. There are problems with this:
People interpret the meaning of a job title and the value of a particular employer based on their own knowledge, experience, and biases, and may end up with a distorted impression that deviates far from your reality.
No value is conveyed by a job title alone. Some job titles may imply high status or worthwhile work, but what a person actually does is far more important than what the role is called.
If you’ve done the job a long time, you may be perceived as stuck in it.
This kind of response is even less effective when an unemployed person uses it: “I was a program manager at Lockheed for 26 years”. In addition to the problems above, consider the other thoughts that likely flash through the mind of the listener:
You’re no longer working at Lockheed (or perhaps anywhere)
You’re late in your career
You stayed with one employer for a very long time (can be perceived as resistance to change, risk aversion, not valuable enough to be recruited elsewhere, etc.)
Your learning probably slowed down years ago
Your employer didn’t value you enough to retain you
Wow! That’s a lot of negative stuff that certainly doesn’t help you build rapport. Also, leading with your job title and your employer can be risky: the listener may already have negative opinions about your job title and/or your employer, whether that opinion is based on facts or mere perceptions.
The Key to a Successful Self-Introduction: Convey Value Quickly
To effectively engage a person you’re meeting, you need to capture interest, and the best way to do that is to quickly convey value. You can pique interest with a provocative remark (“I get paid to destroy things”), or an unexpected juxtaposition (“I dig high-tech ditches”), but you need to quickly communicate how what you do for a living creates value for others. The most effective self-introductions are general enough to be used with anyone, specific enough to position you as unique, and good at creating a personal, emotional connection to the story you’re telling.
A Simple Framework for an Effective Self-Introduction (“Personal Pitch”)
With a little preparation and practice, anyone can deliver a self-introduction that captures interest of most people. I recommend a 60-90 second introduction based on a simple 3-part framework:
PRESENT: State what you do that creates value.
PAST: Cite an impressive achievement you accomplished.
FUTURE: Outline what you want, and ask for input.
What you say about the past is very important for conveying your value, but you don’t want to spend much of your limited time there. Keep your emphasis on the present and the future, and people will tend to perceive you as current and forward-looking.
Let’s unpack each of these three parts a little more.
PRESENT: What I do that creates value
Rather than stating your job title, figure out the essence of what you do, for whom you do it, and the value that it brings. Instead of saying “I’m an attorney”, say “I keep companies out of trouble by guiding them safely through the complexities of international licensing laws.” Use the present tense, even if you’re between jobs; you want to convey that this is what you do. Look for an outcome that anyone can appreciate, and try to develop a ‘hook’ that gets attention and makes you memorable. The best ‘hooks’ create a personal, emotional connection to the story.
PAST: An accomplishment that proves my value
This brief reference to the past contains a proof statement that drives home the value of what you do. It typically starts with “For example, at [employer], I…”, and ends with an impressive accomplishment. Focus on a brief, concrete example with significant positive outcome, and quantitate whenever feasible (money, people, time, etc.). “For example, at Cisco, I put together a team of 5 people that increased profit margins by 7% and yielded annual savings of $980 million by negotiating better deals with our second-tier suppliers.”
Watch your audience carefully; if your proof statement is effective, you’ll get a visible reaction (“Wow”, “That’s impressive”, eyebrows raised, etc.). The reaction is typically unconscious – it’s triggered automatically by the impact of what you’ve just said. That’s the moment you know that value has been recognized, and that’s the time to move on to your future.
FUTURE: What I’m now seeking
This is, for you, the most important part of your self-introduction, and yet many people fail to follow through with it. Here, your goal is to capitalize on the goodwill you just established by conveying value, and use it to get what you need from your networking contacts. You’re going to make a request. For it to be effective, you need to be clear about what you want, and you need to ask in a way that does not allow your question to be easily dismissed.
The basic format for this part is a statement or two that paints a picture of what you want, followed by open-ended questions (ones that can’t be answered Yes or No). “What I’m looking for now is a sales role in construction equipment or supplies. Which companies come to mind? If you were me, how would you go about finding other companies like that? Who do you know in the construction industry?”
Your contacts will probably have to think for a moment; allow them a little time to do so. If it becomes clear that they just aren’t going to come up with anything, try stimulating some additional ideas by asking additional open questions, or mentioning some of the targets or resources you’re already considering. Most often, people will come up with a couple of suggestions, contacts, or ideas to help you. Thank them for their efforts, and be sure to reciprocate by asking how you can help them.
Phrasing your questions in an open-ended form is extremely important. If you ask “Do you know anyone working at GE?”, the answer can be a simple “No”, and the conversation falls flat. If you instead ask “Who do you know who works at GE?” or “How could I get introduced to people working at GE?”, you keep the conversation flowing, and you can steer it to where you need to go next. To make sure you’re asking open-ended questions, avoid starting with “Do” or “Can”, and instead start with words like “Who”, “What”, “Where”, “When”, “Why”, “How”, and “Which”.
Examples of Effective Personal Pitches
Let’s see how the framework works when applied to various situations:
1. Our “Lockheed Lifer” (mentioned earlier in this article)
“I lead teams that get payloads up into orbit safely, reliably, and at lowest cost. For example, at Lockheed, I led the team that placed the GPS satellites that your phone or car navigation system use to tell you where you are and how to get where you want to go." [Wow, cool!] "Currently, I’m looking for an opportunity to lead another engineering team that’s doing challenging work, not necessarily in the aerospace realm. What kinds of interesting projects have you heard about that I should check into?"
2. Electronics tester
“I keep your electronic equipment from going up in flames. I verify that it complies with regulations for electrical safety, for radio-frequency compliance (so that it doesn’t interfere with cell phones or navigation on a plane), and for environmental responsibility (so your grandkids will inherit a better world). At Toshiba, I cut the time required for certification from 8 weeks down to 4, so we got product out to market a month earlier." [Huh! That’s impressive.] “I just moved to the area to work for a smaller, US-based company, and I’m trying to find a good real estate agent. Who would you or your friends recommend?”
3. Molecular biologist
“I modify micro-organisms to produce useful products. An algal strain I developed produced a cooking oil with better properties than olive oil, and another strain produced a biodiesel fuel that powered two unmodified Volkswagen cars for a year with no issues.” [Wow, cool!] “My company is looking for investors. Who do you know who might be interested? Where could I go to meet potential investors?”
4. Horizontal driller
“I dig high-tech ditches. You know how you feel when they bring out the backhoes, dig up your street to lay cable, and slap some asphalt on top? I do the job a better way. I punch a small hole at each end of the street, drill horizontally between them, and get the cables pulled below without messing up the nice surface of your street." [Wow, that’s cool.] "I’m certified on the Ditch Witch horizontal driller and I’ve got my Class A license, and I’d like to live up in the Sacramento area. I’m talking with AT&T and ComCast already; who else might be laying cables?”
5. HR benefits manager
“I balance the needs of employees and companies by structuring benefits packages that satisfy employees while keeping costs under control. When Western Digital bought SanDisk, I reconciled the differences between their benefit plans, and when PayPal split off from EBay, I customized the new plans to fit each company’s needs. [Huh – you’ve done some big projects with name-brand companies!] I’d like to transition into a consulting role that won’t require me to fight through commute traffic each day, since I live 30 miles away. Who do you know who works as a consultant? How could I learn more about the pros and cons of consulting?"
Develop and Practice Your Own Personal Pitch!
Any job can be made interesting if you can uncover the underlying, relatable value of the work you do. You may not find it easy to deliver your pitch at first, but it will get easier and more natural with practice.
Clearly, being ready with a good personal pitch can turn networking from an awkward and uncomfortable experience into a productive and even enjoyable activity. To keep it productive, you must remember to finish with a clear request, and to reciprocate by finding out what you’ll do for the person you’re meeting.
The benefits of developing a good pitch go beyond networking, though. As you discover the value you offer that makes people react positively, you’ll feel better about yourself and your work, and you’ll get more confident about asking for information that will help you move forward.
That same value that gets people to react should help you identify your core value proposition, and guide you in the development of a compelling summary for your résumé and LinkedIn profile.
A good personal pitch is also an excellent way to handle one of the most common questions asked at the start of interviews: “Tell me about yourself.” You’re not being asked for a full biography; you’re being asked to summarize why you’re there. If you respond with a concise encapsulation of your value, a brief and compelling proof statement, and a clear picture of what you what and how that fits, your interviewer will be impressed and pleased.
Getting Beyond Discomfort
Some people I’ve coached have felt uncomfortable with the concept of the personal pitch; they feel that talking about accomplishments is bragging, or trying to sell people something that’s not of interest to them.
It’s important to remember that people you meet at networking events want to know something about you (after all, they asked!), and they don’t want to be bored. There’s nothing wrong about answering their question in a way that keeps them interested and engaged, as long as you’re telling the truth. In fact, if you develop a good pitch, you’ll be doing them a favor, because you won’t be putting them in the awkward position of having to find a way to break away from you before a meaningful connection is made.
Another way to get past discomfort is to be the first to ask. Learn about the people you’re meeting, and offer them things that could help them: information, contacts, content, feedback, etc. This positions you as a giver rather than a hard-selling taker, and will make people more inclined to connect with you. It also gives you information you can use to fine-tune your personal pitch for the current situation. And finally, there’s nothing wrong with letting people develop some curiosity about you, which will get them to eventually ask “So what do you do?”