networking… “What do you do?” and Why Your Answer is Wrong by Janet Krenn

Networking. It’s how you can get a job. It’s how you can self-promote. It’s important in every profession. For many of us, networking is a mystery. I mean, how do you go from “hello” to getting a job? How do you go from “nice to meet you” to let’s collaborate?

My local PRSA chapter held a speed networking event last month, and it opened my eyes! The speaker presented on “Make Your Contacts Count: Networking know-how for business and career success” by Anne Barber and Lynne Waymon, and I foudn that I have been giving the wrong answer to the very first question asked in any networking conversation–“What do you do?”

By giving one of the two popular incorrect answers, I’ve been missing opportunities to describe my value, achievements, and goals. Instead, I provided meaningless, but easy, responses. In short, I’ve been failing at personal branding.

Wrong Answer #1: I work for a company.

I used to say, “I work for McDougal Littell” and those in the textbook publishing industry were usually impressed. Maybe you work for GE, and you know that dropping the company name will sound impressive. But the company name doesn’t promote you and your strengths. In the first minutes of conversation, I neglected to give my conversation partner any interesting information. What if they’ve never heard of your company before? Will you have to spend valuable networking time explaining the company rather than your own value?

Wrong Answer #2: I am a job title.

No matter how much you like your job, you are not your job title. How many other people are in PR? Thousands! By saying you are a job title, all of your achievements and goals, the reasons why someone should want to work with you, are hidden. Will an answer like, “I’m an account manager” get you recommended for job openings? Probably not.

Right Answers are Descriptive

I can much more easily point out the wrong answers than to give you a blanket “right” one. Basically, you want to give a quick, descriptive answer that is achievement driven (what have you accomplished? how have you accomplished it?), goal oriented (what are your goals when you enter the office? what are your long term goals?), value-added (what value do you have as an employee? what are your strengths?), and inspire questions (will your descriptive answer lead the conversation to those probing questions that will help you reveal your value, achievements, and goals?).

Myself as an Example

As I said, I used to answer “What do you do?” with lack-luster answers, such as, “I work for Virginia Sea Grant” or “I am a communicator.”

After more thought, I’ve started to elaborate to say, “I translate science to non-scientists.” But even this slightly more descriptive answer doesn’t explain the value of my skills well. So I kept adding, pruning, and rethinking my answer to the “What do you do” question, until I got to the answer at the end of this post.

What do you do?

Well, how might you answer this networking question to best show off your achievements, goals, and value? To celebrate our newly unlocked comments section of this blog (no log-in necessary to participate), write your own new-and-improved response to the What do you do? question.

JANET KRENN helps coastal industry, and communities make ecologically and economically sound decisions by translating science to non-scientists. (She is also your 2010 New Pros of PRSA Chair, and the past, 2009, Communication Chair. Follow her on Twitter @JanetKrenn or contact her janetqs(a)