How to Talk About What You Do (without Being Boring)
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Marketing Jun 1, 2024

How to Talk About What You Do (without Being Boring)

The key is not to say too much—or too little. Here are some exercises to get you started.

Entrepreneur in a romper pitches new idea.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Craig Wortmann

Summary Developing compelling responses to questions like, “So what do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself” can pay dividends, argues Kellogg clinical professor Craig Wortmann. In this article, Wortmann advocates for being both brief and punchy. He also offers two exercises that people can do as they prepare for job interviews or try to make a memorable first impression.

Right behind, “How are you?” one of the most common questions we get asked is, “What do you do?” We get this question so frequently that we probably have some boilerplate response we say to everyone, one that is likely forgotten soon afterwards.

“That’s just boring,” says Craig Wortmann, a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. For Wortmann, this seemingly humdrum interaction is an opportunity to be memorable, punchy, and extraordinary. As Wortmann says, “Why be boring when you could be interesting?”

But this isn’t just about being the “cool kid” at the office. How we talk about ourselves has concrete benefits. We could use the opportunity to create an impression in a work meeting, stand out in a job interview, or become a colleague our peers turn to for clarity on issues.

In a recent The Insightful Leader Live webinar, Wortmann shared advice on how to effectively talk about ourselves and our work. He also provided some exercises to hone our personal elevator pitch. Here are some of the highlights from the talk.

Don’t overexplain, be crisp

According to Wortmann, one way we misstep when it comes to describing our work or career is miscalibrating how much to share. “The answers tend to cluster too much or too little,” says Wortmann. Too little might be something like “I’m a professor” or “I do mergers and acquisitions.” These are, of course, accurate descriptions of a job, but not particularly engaging.

On the other side of the spectrum you have what Wortmann calls “over-manifesting knowledge.” You may have had the experience of being at a conference, asking someone what they do, and receiving an excruciatingly detailed breakdown of their day-to-day.

“That’s a mistake,” says Wortmann, “you’re saying too much and now you’re way over your skis and you’re over-manifesting knowledge.”

Instead, Wortmann advises being crisp. A crisp answer is one that is to the point, but packed with information, giving your response vitality that draws someone one in. For example, here’s a response Wortmann often provides to describe his work:

I’m a professor at Kellogg where my partner, David Schonthal, and I teach a course that demystifies the fuzzy front end of starting businesses.

Focus on starting a conversation

One way to think about a crisp response is that it spurs a conversation. In contrast to monologuing about what you do, being crisp invites the other person to ask a logical follow-up question. The example above is clearly not an exhaustive explanation of what Wortmann does, but it might naturally lead someone to ask for more details about the class or how long he’s been teaching or what all counts as the “fuzzy front end” of entrepreneurship.

“Now we’re having a conversation,” says Wortmann, “rather than me talking at them.”

It might seem like a small thing, but turning what is typically a throwaway conversation into a dialogue is going to make you more memorable, a valuable asset.

Reducing, reduce, reduce!

Job interviews are a classic example of situations that require us to effectively talk about ourselves. It’s also an arena where people often over-manifest their knowledge, giving their entire life story as they watch the interviewer’s eyes glaze over.

Wortmann and his colleague Carter Cast, a clinical professor of strategy at Kellogg, devised an exercise to combat this tendency to bloviate and reduce a response to one with crispness and energy. Say one started with this description of their work experience:

I started my career at Facebook almost seven years ago. It’s been an interesting place to be, as the company has changed significantly over those years. For most of my tenure, I served on a product team that was responsible for rapid prototyping of features related to our advertising platforms. As you can imagine, that is a very competitive space, with Google the incumbent and Tik Tok a fast-moving upstart. But I was able to succeed there, and that’s why I believe that my particular strengths would be a great addition to your team. One of my strengths is quickly gaining an understanding of a situation to solve problems faster. A second strength is learning from feedback so I can pivot really quickly.

Saying this out loud would take around 30 seconds. Now, take that first lengthy response and reduce it by half. Something that could look like this:

I started my career at Facebook, and I was successful on a product team that was responsible for our advertising platforms. It’s a very competitive space with Google and Tik Tok ever present. That’s why I believe that my particular strengths would be a fit here. One of my strengths is quickly gaining an understanding of a situation to solve problems fast; another is learning from feedback so I can pivot really quickly.

Wortmann and Cast then think you should reduce it again, this time getting the answer down to just a few sentences. For example:

You know I’ve learned so much at Facebook; I’m grateful for that experience. Competing with the likes of Google and TikTok have made me a better leader. I think I’m a great fit here for two main reasons. First, I learn quickly. And second, I take coaching really well.

Reducing and condensing your response allows you to get to the good stuff more efficiently.

Being crisp is a gift

It’s not uncommon for Wortmann to get some pushback after going through this exercise. People often reply that it’s simply too little in response to a question asking for some background.

“I disagree,” says Wortmann, “Because being crisp is both boldness and humility. And those are magnetic qualities in you. I’m hiring you because I want you to be bold.”

While it may seem like we’re helping by providing more detail, Wortmann argues we’re actually doing the opposite. Our work lives are filled with emails, texts, Slack messages, and meetings: a constant barrage of information.

By developing the ability to be crisp in our responses, we’re doing everyone a favor. “That’s an act of generosity in a noisy, distracted world.”

For more from Wortmann, please watch the entire The Insightful Leader Live webinar below.

Featured Faculty

Clinical Professor of Marketing, Founder and Academic Director of the Kellogg Sales Institute

About the Writer

Andrew Meriwether is a journalist and radio producer based in Chicago.

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