Dos and Don’ts of Explaining What You Do

One of the toughest things about any networking conversation is that moment where we have to explain what we do.

If our work is unusual, we’re faced with the difficult task of explaining something complex and unfamiliar in a quick and interesting way. If our work is more common (eg. real estate or accounting), we have to somehow differentiate ourselves from scores of other people doing the ‘same’ thing.

Either way, it’s tough. I’ve shared my favourite hack for this before, in Mastering the Dreaded Elevator Speech. The gist of the technique is to start by telling people why we do what we do, before getting into the what.

As I’ve worked with people to apply this technique, I’ve noticed some common struggles and missteps. Here are my top tips on how to use your why to tell people what you do in a really effective and engaging way.



  • Use it as an opportunity to reveal something about yourself: open up a little. Share some of your history, or something you’re passionate about. Give your new contact something to latch on to, something to work with in your subsequent conversation.
  • Keep it as short: one sentence or phrase each for why, how, and what. The point of an elevator speech is to whet the conversational appetite – give the listener just enough info to get interested and come looking for more.
  • Tailor it to the person you’re talking to: think about their history, what they care about. Of course, you can’t know everything about your new acquaintance, but consider their age, gender, the circumstances under which you’re meeting them…if your why can be something that is both true for you and resonant with them, that’s the ideal.



  • Make it about money. I can’t count the number of people who initially tell me their personal and unique why is financial gain of some kind. This is never true. There are a million ways to make money, and everyone needs to make it somehow. There’s a reason you’ve chosen to make it in the particular way that you do. Focus on that. Besides, no one finds the fact that you’d like to pay off your student loans, retire early, or buy a bigger house a compelling reason to work with you or support you. Dig deeper.
  • Reveal too much, too fast. As much as it’s important to reveal something of yourself, it is also possible to go too far. Balance is essential. On first meeting you, almost no one will be comfortable hearing all the deepest, darkest details of the life experiences that led you to do the work you do. Your new contact is not your therapist. At this early stage, keep it general and light. If your new contact is intrigued, deeper conversations can come later.
  • Limit yourself to just one version. Your elevator speech will probably never be finished. I am constantly tinkering with mine. My fundamental reason for doing what I do doesn’t really change that much, but the environments I’m in, the people I’m talking to, and the projects I’m focused on all do. In explaining what I do, I feel there’s always room for improvement so I treat it as a perpetual work in progress. Don’t pressure yourself to perfect it or get it ‘right’. Just play with it as you go along.

If you are in the Edmonton area, we have monthly meetups where you can hone your skills. Sign up here to join us.

By | 2018-03-01T14:49:21+00:00 September 6th, 2017|We Hate Networking Club|2 Comments


  1. Nathan September 6, 2017 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    There’s more complexities. One’s might make one’s living at part-time, or have multiple sources of income, or be engaged in multple other projects that don’t earn income, and what you do to earn a living may not be the what you are most passionate about of the things you are engaged in.

    • Nadine Riopel September 20, 2017 at 10:52 am - Reply

      There are a few things to unpack here, Nathan. First – there’s no reason the thing you are explaining has to be the thing that earns you a living. It goes back to why you are networking, the environment you are in, the people you are meeting. Why are you meeting with them, what do you want to engage with them about? You could have different versions of this for different situations.

      Next – there’s a reason you do everything you do. Even if, for example, your source of income isn’t your driving passion, you chose it over other methods for a reason. That reason, even if it doesn’t light your world on fire, is still more interesting than the bare bones of the tasks involved. So if you do find yourself in a situation where you decide to answer the ‘what do you do’ question with an explanation of how you make a living, I still think it’s best to start with why.

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