How effective is your reply to the question: What do you do?

Sep 8, 2020 | Business messaging and branding, Networking, Sole practitioners

No one has asked me what I do since lockdown started. I’ve been thinking about how I might reply next time. What about you?

What do you do?

I think there are 4 standard ways we can answer the question. I know which approach I prefer. What about you?

1 State your profession/role and leave the other person to assume they know what you do.
Unsurprisingly I know lots of people who might simply answer: I’m an accountant or I’m a tax adviser. But this is not answering the question “What do you do?”. They are instead answering “Who are you?” – and, arguably, not in the most stimulating way.

The sad truth is that people who simply state their profession are often almost apologetic. Experience has taught them that admitting they are an accountant may generate a dismissive or negative reply.

2 – A long-winded answer that’s largely immemorable.
Often these answers begin: “I do lots of things”.

3 – A tricky distinct reply or ‘elevator pitch’ that is designed to prompt a follow up question.
Like the accountant whose introduction at networking events was to say: “I collect brown envelopes [long pause] – those that HMRC sends to my clients, so that I can help keep their taxes to a legal minimum”.  Done well this approach can be very effective at making you memorable and helping you to STAND OUT positively. More often though these intriguing answers are confusing and counter-productive. The lasting impression can be a negative one – that you are a slick smarty pants who enjoys playing this game at the expense of the people you meet. This is probably NOT the impression you want to give!

4 – A concise description of the impact you cause

This will often be a well rehearsed simple, clear, distinct and memorable line focused on why people are better-off after you do what you. After all that is what helps you be more memorable than other people in the same profession as you.

A fifth response is perfectly legitimate.

5 – It depends

This is the approach of those who adapt what they say in an effort to ensure it resonates and is relevant to the person they are talking with. A highly commendable approach. It typically demands that you get in first and ask questions of the other person before they can ask you what you do


When I wrote about this topic on Linkedin recently a couple of responses really stood out positively:

Rob Newman uses his answer to the question as his Linkedin profile headline: “I help ambitious small business owners across greater Manchester run their finances and be tax efficient”.  Note the inclusion of his local area in his reply. I have no doubt that Rob has clients elsewhere and could easily service clients elsewhere in the country. But that’s what everyone says  and it doesn’t help us to remember him.

Beth Jackson, whose Linkedin profile headline starts: “Not another cr@p accountant”, says that her reply usually goes something like “I’m an accountant”…:cue their face change and my laugh…”yeah I know but not like the ones you’re used to so don’t be scared” and then the conversation flows.

And another very successful female accountant told me, rather sheepishly, that when younger she would reply that “I work for an accountant” as, she felt that, back then, young men were less intimidated if they thought she was on the secretarial side.

Alternative approaches

There are two other distinct ways to reply to think about how you answer the question “What do you do?”

The first one requires you to pretend you have been asked a slightly longer question. How would you reply if the question was: “What do you do and why should I be interested and remember your reply?”

I like to pretend this is the question I was asked and then to answer appropriately.

Three related tips here will also help ensure you are remembered positively. It’s not enough to remember a rehearsed reply to the question. What also maters is:

  1. what needs to be going on in your head;
  2. the level of self confidence you display and
  3. whether it is specific to you or could any other accountant say the same thing?

I want you to be more confident that what you do is valuable and worthwhile. Your role as an accountant is important to your clients and to society. And YOU are special, different and distinct from other accountants (even though the output of your compliance work might be much the same as each other).

Maybe you help business people get a detailed understanding of what’s really going on in their business. Or you help give people peace of mind that their tax affairs are in order and that they are not paying any more in tax than they need to. There are many variations on these ideas. None though is focused around simply preparing sets of accounts or tax returns. The focus is on the value you deliver (as perceived by clients), the impact or change you cause. This is all much more important and memorable than the work you do. It’s more valuable and it’s more crucial.

Talking in such terms can also help change people’s perceptions of what it means to be an accountant.

It is crucial though that YOU believe what you are saying. If you just say it because it sounds good you won’t fool anyone. You will simply be guilty of self deception and risk coming across as a slimy salesman.

Simple straightforward factual replies allow the other person to put us in a ‘box’. This is what happens when we simply state our profession (eg: “I’m an accountant” or “I’m a tax investigations specialist”). This has the positive result of ensuring the other person knows how to categorise us. But it doesn’t make us memorable.

The sad truth is that most people you meet don’t care what you do. They don’t care about your profession and they don’t care about your clever ‘elevator pitch’. What might make them care is if your reply to their question evidences the value of what you do and the impact that your involvement causes for them; and especially if you express this in a way that is relevant to them in some way,

This is a key reason why I am not a fan of having one standard stock answer to the question: “What do you do?” I always want my answer to resonate with the person I’m with. And this is why I pretend that the question they asked was actually:“What do you do and why should I be interested and remember your reply?”

Some of the best answers to this question start with the words “I help [ideal target client type]….

And continue by referencing a common problem that such people face. For example I might say: “I help accountants to better remembered, referred and recommended so that they get more leads, more business and more fees”.  Referencing my role as a mentor or speaker is best saved for later in the conversation.

My friend, Lee Warren, suggests a variation on this approach that requires you to formulate a reply that conveys the value you provide quickly and simply. And to do this you should think in terms of a reply that starts with the words:

At the heart of what I do is a very simple idea….

If you want to stand out from others who do what you do, you really do need to be able to sum up what you do in a way that is memorable, relevant and distinct. It is rarely quick or easy to learn to do this well. Can you do it?

Just stop for a moment and consider how you would answer if someone asked you: “What do you enjoy doing?”

Now think how much better that reply sounds than what you normally say when someone asks you: “What do you do?”

In formal business networking situations your reply to that ubiquitous question may be one of your prepared and rehearsed ‘elevator pitches’. You would choose the one that will resonate best with the person asking the question. (It helps to find out about them first!)

In more social situations the same question can be answered very differently. The question is often being used as a variation on the ‘how are you?’ question everyone asks without expecting a reply containing any form of detailed medical information.

You will STAND OUT, positively, if your reply to standard questions like this is more interesting and distinct from everyone else. One easy way to do this is to imagine a slightly different question has been asked.  eg: “What do you enjoy doing?”

When I’m not mentoring accountants, I’m a business owner and my current focus is on boosting traffic to the website and boosting the value of membership of the Tax Advice Network.  But if I ever tried to get all of that into a reply to a new acquaintance I would probably be wasting my time.

When we answer the question we surely want the other person to be able to recall our reply. We want to be referred and recommended. As I frequently point out this always starts with first being REMEMBERED (positively).

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