“What do you do?” How to answer this question like an artist

So. What do you do?

For years, I’ve read articles that tell me to never ask people what they do as an icebreaker. And yet, people I don’t know keep asking me what I do.

How about you? Do people ask you what you do a lot?

I suspect that no matter how many articles pile up on this topic — people won’t change. They’ll keep at it. They’ll keep asking what I do.

That’s cool. But a few years ago, I decided to change my answer.

In the past, I might have said I was a writer. Or a teacher. Or a business communication consultant. Or a speech coach.

Freelancers tend to cobble together an umbrella career of a wide range of skills. We perform many tasks in the realm of crafting and delivering messages.

I’ve been toying with the idea of saying “I’m a slasher. I write SLASH teach SLASH coach SLASH speak…you get the picture.

It’s very Hollywood. No one’s an actor. They’re an actor SLASH writer SLASH producer.

Think Orson Welles. Or Oprah. Or Donald Glover. They not only slay, they’re slashers.

But saying “I’m a slasher” can be confusing for people who ask what I do. If I tell them I’m a writer, most think in terms of “book” — not “speeches” or “scripts” or “copy”.

If I say, “teacher” – they ask what grade. If I say “speaker” – they ask if I live in a van, down by the river.

To help clear things up, I tried following some more advice. This time, another slew of articles and books told me that I needed to craft an elevator pitch.

I was instructed to say something like this,

“I work with growing businesses to help them create and deliver compelling messaging.”

But to me, that sounded arch and stilted. It also seemed like I was using a lot of words to say “I write, teach, coach, and speak.”

The elevator pitch approach? It didn’t work out too well for me. I felt like a dope when I said it. So I’ve hit upon a new tactic when people ask me what I do.

I literally tell them. I share the most recent, top-of-mind thing I actually did. For example, here’s a list of a few things I might say:

  • “Oh! I’m reading this fascinating book about…”
  • “Last week, I published an article on…”
  • “I spoke at a conference about…”
  • “I took a class on…”
  • “I’ve been listening to more audio books. I just finished…”
  • “So far this year, I spent over 100 hours trying to get medical coverage.”
  • “I’ve been driving my car less and walking more.”
  • “I went on vacation to…”
  • “I sous vide a turkey in a beer cooler.”
  • “I’m watching…”
  • “I participated in a…”

See what I’ve done? I’ve taken the question literally. When people ask what I do, I tell them what I’m actually doing…then I follow it up with a little bit of specificity.

I’ll confess. This approach has gotten mixed results. Many times, people will be interested in a book I’ve read, a class I’ve taken, or a conference I attended.

Then, they chime in with their own reading list. Or class. Or conference. Or whatever.

I like it when that happens. It’s an entertaining discussion. And we end up bonding over interests and ideas.

But other times, all this ‘literal’ approach does is cause more confusion. I might tell someone I wrote an article about a topic and they’d repeat,

“Sure. But what do you do? You know? For a living?”

So then I’d fall back to saying, “I write, teach, and coach.” Then, they’d seem annoyed or confused that I didn’t lead with that before telling them about an article I wrote.

Oh, well. No matter. Can’t win ’em all.

On the plus side, I’m not hurting for clients or work. At the moment, I have plenty to do.

I sometimes joke that I sign so many non-disclosure agreements, it’s a wonder I can talk about anything. Ever. At all.

On the negative side, I have no idea if my ‘answering the question literally’ is the right approach to take. But, hey. At least I’m enjoying myself.

People aren’t going to stop asking me what I do any time soon. By being literal, I’m hoping to create a more human connection over interesting topics like books, ideas, current events, and mutual interests.

What about you? What do you say when people ask “So. What do you do?”

Laura Bergells is a writer, teacher, and a LinkedIn Learning course author. Check out Establishing Credibility as a SpeakerCrisis Communication and Public Speaking.

Laura has decades of experience as a business communication coach. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and leads workshops on effective communication. You can find Laura on Twitter and at YouTube.