How Do You Respond to the Question: What Do You Do?

By Heather Baldwin

Imagine if one person every business day asked you what you do for a living. On average, that works out to about 265 times a year that someone asks about your business. “How many of those opportunities are you turning into even the most basic of connections and how many are you turning into new business?” asks Dave Sherman, professional icebreaker and founder of Connection Pros, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based speaking, training and consulting organization ( If you’re like most people, the answer is none. In his book, Elevating Your Elevator Speech (Sherman, 2005), Sherman says that less than 2% of the people with whom he talks have a well-crafted answer to the question: What do you do? That means 98% of us are missing out on a lot of new business.

So how do you turn the most common icebreaker question into a foundation for a new business relationship? Sherman says you need to craft a short, simple answer – sometimes called an elevator speech – that grabs the listener’s attention, engages the listener in conversation about your business and encourages the listener to ask for more information. The way to do that, he says, is not by giving a sales pitch that’s all about you, but by providing an interesting answer that is all about the listener.

Take Sherman, for example. When asked what he does, he says: “I’m a professional icebreaker. I help people develop fantastic first impressions so they become totally unforgettable in the eyes of the people they meet.” Interesting, right? If you were at a networking event and met someone who said that, you’d want to know more. Now imagine instead he told you he owns a consulting company that trains businesses in how to make connections with customers, and then had rambled on about the big-name companies with whom he has worked. Your eyes would glaze over and Sherman would become just another of the 150 faces in the crowd.

It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, says Sherman. Once you create a powerful answer to the question: What do you do? – doors will start to open. Say you work for a copier supply store. A common response would be: I work for ABC Copiers. We have copiers, fax machines and postage meters. Sherman suggests instead you say something such as: I show people how to stop fighting with their copiers. That’s it. People don’t need your company history, your Website address or a list of the products you sell. They simply want to understand how you can help them.

How do you know when you’ve developed a good elevator speech? After you deliver it your conversation partners will ask questions that demonstrate genuine interest and seek more information. But that’s not the time to launch into a sales pitch either, warns Sherman. Instead, if someone seems truly interested in exploring your business, ask permission to exchange business cards and contact the person later. That way you can set up an appointment in a more appropriate setting rather than spend an entire networking event talking to one person.

The question – What do you do? – is so simple and so common, most of us take it for granted. Don’t fall into that trap. “Don’t ever lose sight of the importance of that question,” cautions Sherman. “If you don’t have a good answer, you are missing out on business. Period.”