I have an idea. And it’s that we all stop asking this question:

“What do you do?” (Meaning and Definition)

“What do you do?” is a question that is generally asked to get to know someone’s occupation or what they do for a living. This question is a polite way of engaging someone new or someone you haven’t seen in a long time. People will generally ask this question at networking events and other social gatherings.

This question is so boring! It’s a social script because we’ve been asked it a million times before.

In this guide, I will teach you how to perfectly answer the question “What do you do?”—and what to ask instead.

10 Anti-Boring Ways to Answer “What Do You Do?”

Stuck with the same old autopilot answer? Here’s how to answer this question with grace:

Share a Success

Don’t Say: “I’m a UI design expert.”

Say: “I’m a UI design expert. I help brands do digital makeovers. In fact, I just completed a huge project and helped a client get noticed by  a Fortune 500 company—and now they’re discussing a new partnership!”

Want to put yourself in a positive light? Try relating what you do with a recent success:

  • Did you accomplish a big project recently?
  • What small milestones did you achieve?
  • Were there any measurable effects you produced at your company?

Even if it’s not a professional success, try stating a personal one. Success doesn’t always equal fame or wealth, so simply saying something like “I work as a receptionist and am an avid hiker! I even managed to go on a long 10-mile hike last week” can demonstrate personal success.

Find out more about how successful people master their secrets to success.

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Add a Creative Tagline

Don’t Say: “I’m a writer.” 

Say: “I am a recovering awkward person.”

Ok, this one is personal to me, but I want to give you a new idea. When people used to ask me what I did, I would say, “I’m a writer.” Then inevitably they would ask, “What do you write?” And I would say, “I write about communication and human behavior.” Boring. Predictable. 

So I decided to START with my hook. In fact, the first line of my best-selling book Captivate is “I am a recovering awkward person.” I love this tagline because it’s unique and describes me in a few words. It also creates MUCH more interesting conversation.

Take your normal job title and put a creative spin on it. What’s something only YOU know about your job that the average person doesn’t? Or how can you make your job description unique?

A computer wizard. A superwoman single mother. A content marketing specialist. Don’t be afraid to assign something never heard before. Creative taglines create dopamine and make you memorable.

And yes, it takes a bit of courage to go outside the box, but nothing special ever happens in your comfort zone!

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Find Your Why

Don’t Say: “I am a tax accountant.”

Say: “My mission is to help people minimize their taxes so they can save more money.”

If you’ve ever read Simon Sinek’s best-selling book Start With Why, then you know your mission may be even more important than what you do.

Starting with why will eventually lead you to the how and what of what you do. Try this 3-step framework:

  • Why: Ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. What’s your vision, goal, or mission? Why do you get out of bed in the morning?
  • How: Next, think of how you do things differently. What makes you stand apart from others? What makes your job special?
  • What: Finally, end with what you do. Describe what you offer or what you bring to the table.

This is also a great way to nail interview questions as saying your mission first shows you clearly know what you want.

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Show Passion

Don’t Say: “I’m just a teacher.” 

Say: “I’m a teacher at an incredible local school. I am passionate about helping underprivileged students.” 

When you say your elevator pitch, do you use the words:

  • just
  • kinda
  • only

No more! Don’t limit yourself!

Another thing I have heard people do is deliver their elevator pitch in an apologetic tone. 

I want you to show passion for what you do—even if you don’t feel passionate about ALL you do, do you have any passion for some part of what you do? I once heard a great elevator pitch. She said:

“I’m in marketing. It’s not my dream job, but I can work remotely and that allows me to travel the world and see amazing places.”

Then we got to talk about all the amazing places!

Showing passion immediately shows you are interesting. Even if you have the most boring job in the world, you can still find the small moments of passion in your work.

And if you can’t, try challenging yourself. Passion can come when we’re good at something or find something challenging. So if you’re not improving or being challenged, try mixing things up:

  • try a new routine
  • find out what you can be better at
  • learn more about your industry
  • set a big project and complete it

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Be A Teacher

Don’t Say: “I’m a stress engineer.”

Say: “I’m a stress engineer, which means I go out to construction fields and test whether pipes, valves, and other equipment are safe enough to withstand water pressure. Without my job, a pipe could literally burst from the water pressure built up inside of it!”

Try teaching something about your industry that they may not know. This strategy works great for VIPs and lifelong learners.

Whatever you do, make sure the other person understands and don’t get too in-depth if it’s not welcome. My rule of thumb:

Your elevator pitch should be LESS than 20 seconds. 10 is ideal.

Try reading their body language for closed-off cues to know if they’re getting bored or disinterested.

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The Teeter-Totter Method

Don’t Say: I help vacation homeowners get permits. My job has SO many details. Let me tell you about them.”

Say: “I help vacation homeowners get permits. Speaking of vacations…”

If you don’t think what you do is interesting, then segue it into something that is. If you help people do interesting things then THAT is what your elevator pitch should end on. Some other examples:

  • “I’m a trash collector. You would never believe some of the things people try to throw away.”
  • “I’m an actuary. I use data to predict life expectancy. Do you know the number 1 factor that helps people live the longest?”
  • “I drive for Uber. My favorite part is meeting fascinating people. Want to hear about the most interesting person who ever got into my car?”

So another quick tip you can try is to NOT focus on what you do but instead use this as a teeter-totter opportunity by keeping it short and simple. Here’s how:

  • Keep it short. For example, if you normally would say, “I’m a Chicago-based home realtor who specializes in getting home renters their permits. I do this because homeowners don’t want to wait in line at the office—they want to get their rooms,” try shortening it to “I help vacation homeowners get permits.”
  • The teeter-totter. Once you’ve had a quick back-and-forth, DON’T go into the specifics. Here’s where a lot of newbies make a crucial conversation mistake—they keep talking about the little details that may bore their conversation partner. Instead, change the topic to something more relatable/exciting/fun.

The teeter-totter is a great technique to use at parties or quick networking events where you don’t have a lot of time or you are constantly switching conversation partners.

Special Note: I do NOT recommend using this if you’re in a job interview as it might be perceived as you being unprepared.

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Show Empathy

Don’t Say: “I work in a law firm, but it’s not that interesting……”

Say: “I work at a law firm that specializes in helping people win back money that they deserve. It’s incredible to help people who have suffered bad luck.”  

We are always looking for reasons to connect with people. Sharing emotions, stories, and feelings helps speed this connection up. 

“What do you do?” becomes easy when you can find a way to possibly help someone:

  • What are your common interests?
  • What do you do that can possibly help them?
  • Can you offer something of value?

Can you share a story or detail that goes deeper than just the facts? Not just why you do what you do but who you help? 

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Add a Side Skill

Don’t Say: “I’m an SEO content marketer.”

Say: “I specialize in SEO. I help companies reach the right people. At my last company, I helped raise organic traffic by 15% last month.”

Promoting your talents is crucial.

This is especially helpful when talking about talents people might not know.  This is GOLD, especially in a job interview. Highlight your unknown talents by mentioning other soft skills or technical skills that may not necessarily be required for your job position but could help if mentioned.

For example, if you’re applying for a software engineer position at Apple or Microsoft, besides stating how great you are with programming, you might want to mention your team leadership skills, that you’re a body language aficionado, or your interest in other hobbies.

Keep it professional, however. Your side skills should only make you a better candidate, not take away from your spotlight.

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The Hero’s Journey

Don’t Say: “I’m a farmer.”

Say: “I started out as a Wall Street analyst. I had it all, but I felt empty inside.  One day, on a weekend road trip, something hit me. I wanted to start a farm. So I started my crazy journey and now I’m a proud farm owner.!”

People love stories. When we hear a story, our brains feel and see images. Try using the Hero’s Journey technique in your response. If you have an interesting background, start your elevator pitch with:

  • “Back in the day…”
  • “I am a former…”
  • “I am a recovering…”
  • “I am a ___ turned ____.”

The Hero’s Journey storytelling method has 4 parts:

  • where you started
  • the difficulties you faced
  • how you overcame them
  • where you are today

Everyone has a unique story. What’s yours? Try adding in some storytelling techniques to make your story pop.

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Inject Humor

Don’t Say: “I’m a dog trainer.”

Say: “I’m a dog’s soulmate. I love taking dogs on long walks on the beach, getting them their favorite treats, and taking care of them while the owners are gone. Oh, and I also teach them how to walk on a leash, bark less, and sit when told. I can be a soulmate for dog owners too.”

Try leading in with a funny twist. Humor is a great way to answer this question—in fact, there are a whole host of benefits, including reducing stress and building rapport.

You can also add humor by:

  • Being self-deprecating: “I’m a COP… a Chronic Old Person.”
  • Using a funny tagline: “I’m the guy who shows up whenever someone yells, ‘Call the guy!’”
  • Exaggerate: “Every day, I save lives and make sure little monsters don’t eat each other. I’m a kindergarten teacher.”

But you don’t have to be a comedian to make people laugh. Being funny is a skill ANYONE can learn (believe me, I couldn’t make a clown laugh!). Head on over to our How to Be Funny article or watch my funny laughter video below:

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How to Answer “Tell Me About You?”

A slight variation of “What do you do?” is “Tell me about you?” Here’s how to expertly answer that question as well: “Tell me about you?”

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What to Ask Instead of “What Do You Do?”

Stop asking what do you do?... it really means "Are you somebody?"

I know we have talked all about how to answer “What do you do?” But I have a confession: I really, really, really don’t like this question in the first place.

“What do you do?” is one of the most overused, boring questions you can ask at any event.

This question really means: Are you somebody? Do you matter? Do we have common interests?

Here’s my challenge for you: Go on a what-do-you-do diet.

I want you to completely remove this question from your repertoire for one month. Ask one of these 3 questions instead:

  • Have any big plans coming up? I love this question because it makes you think. This releases a shot of dopamine, or the pleasure chemical, in our brains. This question makes others remember us more and get excited.
  • Working on anything exciting these days? Now, I use the word “work” because people could bring up what they’re doing at work, or they could bring up their personal hobbies and passions. I also use the word “exciting” because this is also a dopamine-boosting word.
  • Do you have any personal passion projects? If you want to skip the topic of work altogether, ask this question! They can talk about family and social or private things.

When you ask one of these 3 questions, make sure to have an answer yourself. It’s totally OK if they don’t have anything exciting or any big plans coming up—but make sure you’re ready to answer in a way that makes YOU seem exciting and is conversation-worthy.

"Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering" - Dale Carnegie Quote

Don’t have anything exciting coming up?

Start doing them!

For a list of more great conversation starters, I highly recommend checking out my article here.

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The Best Types of Questions to Ask (Backed by Science!)

Not all questions are equal.

There’s a science behind question asking. Can you identify which type of question has the greatest impact on people?

  1. introductory questions (“How are you?”)
  2. mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”)
  3. full-switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely)
  4. follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information)

If you answered 4, you’re correct! Harvard researchers found that follow-up questions are the most powerful type of question. They signal to your conversation partner that you are genuinely listening, care about what they’re saying, and want to know more. People who interacted with a partner who asked lots of follow-up questions felt more respected and heard.

The Takeaway: Follow up any question you ask someone with a follow-up question. For example, here’s how you might do that:

  • You: “What’s your personal passion project?”
  • Them: “I love to go skiing on the weekends!”
  • Your Follow-Up: “Wow! How long have you been skiing for?”

If you liked this article, read one of my amazing articles below to help you sound confident:

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

10 replies on “How to Answer “What Do You Do?” (And What to Ask Instead)”

  1. E.F

    This article is so detailed and insightful – I know I definitely struggle with introductions, and loathe talking about myself.
    I think I have unintentionally been using some of these methods, when people ask “what I do”, because my role is a bit 1) vague and 2) niche:
    “I teach people like train drivers why it is important to set strong, unique passwords.”
    (I work in cyber sec).
    Despite lockdowns, and the pandemic, if I get the opportunity to see people again, I want to ask people what they are passionate about! I love to see people get excited talking about what they love 🙂

  2. Julie P

    If I am feeling cheeky and obviously depending on circumstances-

    I like: I could tell you
    But then I would have to kill you!

    (A personal favourite when I was a stay at home Mum – and although I loved being a mother – talking with toddlers all day and then making interesting conversation was a challenge)

  3. Caren

    Hi Vanessa. I would enjoy hearing your addendum to how to answer this questions when unemployed for 7 months. Would it be, the things you are doing in addition to trying to find your position in “X.”

    1. Robert Hwang

      Hi Caren! I would mention your prior work history, and any skills you’ve acquired during your 7 months being unemployed. You can also mention why you’ve taken time off, or that you’ve been looking for a specific role that this job could potentially fulfill. Good luck! Rob | Science of People Team

  4. Treecia Ramey

    I am so grateful for this post. I HATE that question of “What do you do?” I was a mother, wife, property manager, and bookkeeper among other things for a long time. I knew no one would value or appreciate that answer. I used to jokingly say “nothing” to that question because I hated it so much. This has giving me many ideas of how to respond. Thank you!

  5. Wendy

    This was a helpful article! I usually struggle defining what it is I do, in that I thought it having an impressive title (which I don’t have with my line of work). I started taking notes on how I will answer this question next time I’m asked. I didn’t realized I actually have a story I can sell myself with! Thank you!

  6. Cynthia Brownfield

    Hi Vanessa. Love your outlook and all the science behind the information. Always look forward to reading your articles. My position involved receiving large and small amounts of mail daily. Some of the group would be disheartened when tubs of mail arrived but I always treated it as fan mail. I loved to see the different places the mail came from and read the different handwriting. I liked knowing I would put a smile on someone’s face with the reply. Just a small change in your perception can really make a difference. Best regards.

  7. Kelli Kae

    I usually say a “I’m a Sidetracked Home Executive !” instead of I’m just a mom! It sounds way more important and people usually have to ask what it is. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Your article was amazingly right on target 🎯!

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