“So, what do you do?”

It might be the most dreaded networking question. We stutter. We ramble. We overexplain. We go away feeling the person who asked doesn’t really get it, and isn’t all that interested anymore.

How can we answer this question in a way that is accurate, engaging, and conducive to making great new connections?

One method I’ve found effective is to follow the advice of Simon Sinek: people don’t care what you do, they care why you do it (see full talk here). According to Simon, the best way to tell people what we do is to follow these three steps:

  1. Elevator speechTell them what you believe that makes you choose this work (your WHY)
  2. Tell them what is special about the way you choose to do this work (your HOW)
  3. Tell them what you do (your WHAT)

As Sinek, points out, most people focus on the what, and that’s where we go wrong. The goal is not for people to understand the mechanics of our work. It’s to find the people who believe what we believe – who will be inspired by what we’re doing and will want to get involved.

Take my work, for example. If I were to answer the question, “What do you do?” with my what, it might sound something like,

“I am a facilitator, a speaker, and a trainer.”

Not all that exciting, right? Let’s see what happens if I take Sinek’s method instead:

“I believe that social connection is the key to success in everything we do (WHY), so I help people develop their social skills and connections in a very interactive and hands-on way (HOW) as a speaker, facilitator, and trainer (WHAT).”

Doesn’t that sound better? Isn’t that something you’d like to hear more about? Certainly more so than the first, what-based version.

I’ve found that developing a why based elevator speech is not an exact science. Every person could have umpteen versions of a why-how-what, and I tinker with mine constantly.

Sometimes I say I’ve benefited enormously from having a strong support network, and I want everyone to have that same advantage. Sometimes I say I’m passionate about fighting social isolation because I’ve seen some of its negative consequences. Sometimes I say I want everyone to be able to make their most positive contribution to the world, and I believe they need strong social connections to do that.

It’s all true, and it all beats the heck out of leading with the fact that I do speaking and facilitation.

So how about you? What’s your why? If you’re struggling to pin it down, here are a few questions to consider that might help you get closer:

  1. What is the point of your work/industry? What positive contribution does it make to the world?
  2. Who does your work impact? Who is better off thanks to what you and people like you do?
  3. What are you passionate about in general? Is there any connection to the reason you chose the work you’re doing?
  4. What aspect of your work do you find most interesting, compelling, motivating?