Podcast: Why You Need a Killer Answer to “So, What Do You Do?”
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Careers May 17, 2024

Podcast: Why You Need a Killer Answer to “So, What Do You Do?”

A great response to this question can open doors. On this episode of The Insightful Leader: we’ve got tips for fine-tuning your answer.

Based on insights from

Craig Wortmann

Listening: Why You Need a Killer Answer to “So, What Do You Do?”
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When asked about our work, we might rattle off a canned synopsis or give an uninspired rundown of our day-to-day. But that’s a missed opportunity to make new connections or land a new project.

“Why be boring when you can be interesting?” says Craig Wortmann, a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg and academic director of the Kellogg Sales Institute.

The problem, Wortmann says, is making your response more interesting than all the other forces competing for everyone’s attention (see: emails, meetings, social media, and just about everything else).

On this episode of The Insightful Leader, Wortmann gives a workshop on condensing our responses to only the punchiest bits.

Podcast Transcript

Laura PAVIN:
How many times have you been asked, “So, what do you do for a living?”

Between the workplace, conferences, weddings … probably more than any of us could count.

And most likely you have your boilerplate response. “Oh well, I’m in sales,” or “I’m a lawyer,” or “I’m an executive at a marketing firm.” All accurate, sufficient responses, but as Kellogg Professor Craig Wortmann says …

That’s just boring. There’s nothing there. It’s just, it’s just a whole lot of nothing. Why be boring when you can be interesting?

Welcome to The Insightful Leader. I’m Laura Pavin. Today on the show, we’re digging into how we talk about ourselves and the work we do—basically, our elevator pitch for ourselves, because there’s value in being memorable. Opportunities. Connections. And this doesn’t just apply to sales people and entrepreneurs—having a pithy, engaging way of talking about what we do all day can benefit just about anyone.

Wortmann recently gave a talk at Kellogg on how to develop this kind of pitch for yourself and your own work. So we thought we’d share some of his tips and strategies for punching up your pitch at the water cooler, networking events, even at job interviews.

By the end of this episode, when someone asks you “So, what do you do for work?” you’ll be ready to be anything but boring. That’s next.

Before we dive into how we can become more engaging, we should ask ourselves: Why should non-entrepreneurs be pitching themselves at all? And the answer is this: When we leave a lasting impression on people, it can open the door to a whole bunch of things. New opportunities, future collaborations, even just a really great conversation—you name it. But it’s really easy to fade into the background nowadays because, well, everyone’s days are filled to the brim with conversations. We’re answering emails, responding to Slack, texting with a client or hopping on a video call, or spending hours in meetings. That is a lot of information to be carrying at any one time. And so it’s not surprising that we often tune out if someone doesn’t immediately grab our attention.

We are all swimming through this rushing river of information, and being able to communicate clearly is really an antidote. The antidote is crispness. It’s clarity. Crispness is cutting through the noise.

So in developing the ability to cut through the noise, as Wortmann says, we’re not only helping ourselves stand out, but in a way we’re giving whomever we’re talking to the gift of a brief but compelling response.

Okay, but you may be thinking, “How do you just become more brief-but-compelling? Is that even possible?” According to Wortmann, the answer is, yeah. And it starts with diagnosing the problem a bit more specifically. Where exactly do most of us go wrong when someone asks us, “What do you do?”

The answers tend to cluster too much or too little. So too little is, “I’m a professor.” It’s boring. I mean, it’s accurate, but it’s not super interesting.

But equally as bad is sharing too much.

Oftentimes, when you’re talking to other people, you have too much knowledge. We often overmanifest knowledge and we undermanifest skill and discipline.

What Craig is getting at here is that with our jobs, we know a lot of stuff. There are concepts, frameworks, workflows, rules—all the things you’ve accrued and stored over your career. The problem is that when we get asked about our work, we have a tendency to overexplain. You get asked to talk about your job at a conference and suddenly you’re giving a long-winded explanation of every facet of your day-to-day.

I start telling you my life story and I get lost in the rotation of it. “So I’m a professor at Kellogg. I’ve been at Kellogg for seven years. I run something called the Kellogg Sales Institute, and within the institute we do...,” and I just keep going. And that is a mistake. We make one of those two mistakes: It’s too little and you’re not giving any energy to it or giving somebody the gift of telling them actually what you do. Or you’re saying too much, and now you’re way over your skis—you’re overmanifesting knowledge.

The key is to strike a balance between these two extremes. Providing enough information that paints a specific picture without overexplaining.

What if I’m crisp and clear and very concise? Such that I say a couple intriguing things, and they ask me a question, and now we’re having a conversation rather than me talking at them.

To demonstrate, Wortmann did a little improvisation with our editor in chief, Jess Love, where they role-played an average conversation all of us have had at work or a conference: you see someone you know in the hallway and they ask “How are you?” But instead of saying the typical “I’m fine” or “pretty good, how are you?” Wortmann responds with crispness.

Jess LOVE:
Oh Craig, it’s good to see you today. How are you?

I am well, Jess. Thank you for asking. I’m working on three or four of the most interesting projects I’ve ever worked on in my career. So, I’m tired, but I’m having fun.

What’s been accomplished here? Well, first off, it wasn’t curt, but it was direct. He only really said two sentences. But those sentences were packed with information that Jess could respond to. Like, “wow, what kind of projects? Remind me of what you do?”

I say, Jess, I run a company called Sales Engine. We help people build and tune their sales engines.

And now they’re in a dialogue as opposed to a throwaway interaction. Maybe Jess is going to think about the project Wortmann shared later on and want to follow up or share what she heard with another colleague.

It’s just a little bit to dig your teeth int; it’s a little bit of crispness with a little bit of energy to it, and we believe that it’s a good balance between saying too much, because I could talk a lot about my company. I can talk a lot about Kellogg. But I don’t. Because you haven’t asked for that. You simply asked me what I do. But how might I create something that is more interesting?

So, what does this mean for how we can turn your standard job description into one with some zest? Let’s start with hearing how Wortmann explains his job here at Kellogg.

I say, I’m a professor at Kellogg, where my partner, David Schoenthal, and I teach a course that demystifies the fuzzy front end of starting businesses. And I just love that statement. Almost always, and you have to take my word for this, folks, but almost always that gets a smile.

With that example in mind, let’s do a short exercise together to get the juices flowing. So whether you’re cleaning the house or taking a walk, take 15 seconds to think of an example or two of how you can distill your job down to a crisp answer with some energy. While you do, we’ll give you a little hold music.

[15 seconds of music]

Annnnnd we’re back. How did you do? Did you think of some examples? If not, no worries: it can take time to workshop. Fortunately, when Craig gave this talk, the Kellogg Insight audience chimed in immediately. People shared examples like:

“I’m a doctor for companies.”

“I make humans and machines understand each other.”

“I teach neuroscience in a bank.”

“I cool the oceans.”

Any of these could be the beginning of an interesting conversation. And they work because they each have something intriguing going on that are just begging for a follow up question. What does it mean to be a doctor for companies? Wait, bankers are learning about neuroscience? They’re direct, bold, and easy to understand.

But importantly, Wortmann doesn’t think you should be satisfied with your first draft. Instead, think of them as a starting point.

What we just asked you to do is to build a prototype. And what I’m suggesting with these situations and where you need to achieve crispness is that you build a prototype and take it for a spin. And look, when you take it out, if it’s TMI or people look at you weird, or they’re horrified by it, or you get bad feedback, then build a different prototype. I bet that’ll work though. I bet it’ll work the way that you want it to. And I bet it will surprise you.

Alright, we’ve looked at a couple of examples of how to bring some energy into our responses and ways of reframing the way we talk about our work with people. There’s another area of life where this approach will probably come in handy: a job interview.

This is a classic situation where people tend to overexplain themselves. It’s understandable. They want the hiring manager to know they’re a fit for the job, but casting a wide verbal net can overwhelm people.

Wortmann and his colleague Carter Cast developed an exercise that job-seekers can use to help them avoid that mistake.

Okay, so the prompt is, tell someone about yourself and why you’re a fit for the job they’re hiring for.

To start, you’re going to write out an answer that when you read out loud should take about 30 seconds, around 60 words. Think of this as your overmanifesting version. You’re probably getting into some minutia here, like [clears throat]:

“I started my career at Facebook almost seven years ago. For most of my tenure, I served on a product team that was responsible for rapid prototyping features related to our advertising platforms. It was a very competitive space because of Google and TikTok, but I was able to succeed there. And that’s why I think my particular strengths would translate well to … yadda, yadda, yadda.“

Once you’ve done that, then you’re going to take that 30 second answer and slash it in half so it’s a tight 15 seconds. Cut away unnecessary language, give each sentence some energy, make it easier for people to glom onto. So, maybe that could sound 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 competitive space with players like Google and TikTok always looming. That’s why I think my strengths would work well ... yadda, yadda, yadda.“

Once you’ve got that, you’re going to cut it down again. Boiling everything down into a crisp answer, like this:

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.

Basically, get the stale LinkedIn bio stuff out of there, spend less time building towards the good stuff, and get to the good stuff quicker.

Now you might be thinking, that’s it?! Someone says, “tell me about yourself,” and you give a three sentence answer?

Most of you, I would bet, are saying to yourself, this is not enough in an answer to a question. It’s too little. I disagree. 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. You’re drawing people towards you. One of our favorite words at the Kellogg Sales Institute is the word magnetic. Draw people towards you with crispness. I promise you they will ask you the next question.

And If it feels risky to be this concise in your answer, that’s kind of the point.

Does this take some tolerance of risk? You bet. Anything in life worth doing takes some tolerance of risk. So, why not do it? Embrace risk, which risk here is differentiating yourself, being different. That is an act of generosity in a noisy, distracted world.

Look, are every single one of these crispy responses you think up going to land on the first try? Probably not. But Wortmann’s point is that’s okay! The important thing is that you keep refining and experimenting. Eventually, that creative work is going to pay off and you’re not only going to become someone who is memorable and sought after, you’ll also probably be doing everyone a service for removing a little bit of noise from their day.


This episode of The Insightful Leader was written by Andrew Meriwether. It was produced and edited by Laura Pavin, Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. It was mixed by Andrew Meriwether. Special thanks to Craig Wortmann. Want more The Insightful Leader episodes? You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another episode of The Insightful Leader Podcast.

Featured Faculty

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

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