Confession time: A huge part of why I created the Red Thread method in the first place was to solve a persistent problem of mine—I hate to write. More specifically, I hate staring at a blank page or screen.
I understand that there are people who looooooove a blank page (and, in fact, the love of a “blank canvas” is a central theme in one of my very favorite musicals). To them, it represents “so many possibilities.”
I am, however, not one of those people.
To me, a blank page is… inefficient… especially if I already know the topic I want to write about. How do you start? Where do you go? How do you FILL IN ALL THAT SPACE? More like “so many possibilities to GET IT WRONG.” (Which may be exposing more of my neuroses than you actually wanted….)
Enter the Red Thread, which always gives me, and hopefully, you *somewhere* to start, as it does with this week’s topic: What people are *really* asking when they ask “What do you do?”
The quick version
This is something that’s come up quite a bit in my one-on-one work with clients recently, especially among those companies and experts who get asked that question (or its variants like “What’s that about…?” or “Tell me about yourself…” or “Why are you here?!”). And, like with most things message-related, I have some thoughts.
So, rather than start with a blank page, I drafted this Red Thread…
- GOAL: Answer the question “What do you do?” (and its variants) as effectively as possible.
- PROBLEM: While that question does, in fact, indicate interest… it’s usually not the kind of interest we think it is. People ask that question not because they already are interested in you or what you do, but because they’re trying to figure out if they should be.
- TRUTH: But humans—you and I—are most interested in what we already find interesting. Unfortunately, this creates a deeper problem, because we tend to answer the “What do you do?” question with what we think is interesting… and lose the interest of the people we’re talking to.
- CHANGE: That quirk of humanity, however, also provides a hint at the solution: answer the “What do you do?” question in a way that both satisfies your audience’s curiosity about caring… and creates more.
- ACTION: Since it’s designed to do just that, build your Red Thread Throughline and then incorporate it into your “opening shot.”
- GOAL REVISITED: When you interpret your audience’s interest as exploration first and foremost, you’re more likely to give people something to be interested in and curious about. Even better, since curiosity is a “drive” state, your audience is more likely to be internally motivated to keep listening and to keep asking questions. In other words, you’re more likely to create the interest you thought you had in the first place!
If you want to go deeper…
Does this sound familiar? You first meet someone, and out of politeness (especially here in the U.S.) you ask them, “So what do you do?”
And then the monologue begins.
You brace yourself. After all, the person seems earnest, and they’re clearly excited about what they do. But even though they are using a LOT OF WORDS to tell you, you still don’t quite get it. So you smile and nod, and say vaguely encouraging things like, “Hmm,” and “Oh!”, and if you’re feeling especially nice (or British), “How interesting.”
Now, flip the script.
Imagine you’re the one being asked that question. You might feel a brief frisson of anxiety—Gah! You hate having to answer this question! No matter how hard you try you never quite capture it!—but still, you’re flattered someone asked. So you dive in… and keep sinking.
Okay, so maybe you’ve mastered your answer to this question, but most of the people I talk to don’t feel they have. And more confession time: even if you do get to some level of comfort, you may never really feel like you do a great job with this.
So, how can you get better at answering that question—”What do you do?”— more effectively?
The first step lies in understanding that the problem actually starts with the question itself. Not that someone’s asking it, but that words alone can’t capture someone’s intent around asking.
Thanks to a fun cognitive trap door known as “motivated reasoning,” we immediately interpret that question the way we most want to: that someone is actually interested in us and what we do.We immediately interpret that question the way we most want to: that someone is actually interested in us and what we do. Click To Tweet
And don’t get me wrong, people are interested… just not necessarily in the way we hope they are.
People are busy, you see. You know that, because you’re busy, too. And you don’t have a lot of time to faff around with stuff that isn’t interesting or important to you… and yes, that includes people.
Think about what’s happening when you ask that question of someone: yes, you’re interested, but aren’t you also interested to see whether or not you’ll stay interested? Whether or not who that person is or what they do is worth more of your time and attention?
Here’s the thing: Something doesn’t magically change when the positions are reversed (thinking it will is something I call the Persuader’s Paradox). When someone is asking that question of you, they’re going the same calculus in their minds. “What is that?” “Do I care?” “Should I!?”
They’re looking for relevance—how relevant to them are you and what you do to?
In other words…
People are most interested in what they’re *already* interested in.
And that cuts both ways.
When you’re asking the question, you’re interested in whether or not what you hear answers those deeper questions of relevance.
When you’re answering that question, you’re interested in… you. Sure, you may tell yourself you’re interested in that other person and what they’ve asked. But if that’s really the case, you’ve somehow managed to find a workaround to millennia of human wiring that keeps us well and truly focused on ourselves and our own self-interest (yes, even in the midst of altruistic acts… because they make us feel better!).
And that’s why you dive deep into the minutiae of your work and how you do it, rather than look at your answer from your audience’s perspective.
But in that space between stimulus (“What do you do?”) and response (“HEREAREALLTHETHINGSIDOINALLTHESMALLESTDETAILSIHOPEYOULIKEME”), you can make a change.
You can find a way to satisfy their interest… and create more, too.
“Sorcery!” you say! Eh… not quite. Just an understanding of curiosity and how it actually works. I’ve written before about how curiosity is a curve—and that same idea is in play here:
If you can answer their initial question in a way that hits the middle of that curiosity curve, you can have your curiosity and create it, too. That “middle” of the curve is where someone knows enough about something to be curious about the answer, but not so much that they think there’s nothing left to learn.
That means you have two parts to figure out in your answer:
(1) How can you tell them what you do in a way that makes immediate and intuitive sense? and
(2) What can you tell them that encourages them to want to know more?
I believe the key here is NOT to be mysterious with the first answer.
Don’t give them some word you (or your high-priced brand strategist!) made up. Give them words and concepts they already understand so you can hit curiosity’s magic middle.
For example, depending on the current knowledge level of who I’m talking to about my work, I usually answer the first part in one of several ways:
• “I’m in marketing.” (For someone who likely doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about the general kind of work that I do, and isn’t likely to be interested, either way.)
• “I’m in messaging.” (For someone who likely already has a deeper understanding of marketing and branding.)
• “I’m an English-to-English translator.” (For anybody who may not have a deeper understanding of messaging, but who I think actually would want to know more—or whom I want to engage further. It works because people understand both the words and the concept, even if they haven’t heard that combination before.)
Have your second answer ready, but be willing to abandon it if the person you’re talking to doesn’t seem to, well, be interested!
The second answer is where you actually explain what you do, in terms your audience will understand, while also explaining how you do it in a way they don’t expect.
If that sounds a lot like a Red Thread Throughline to you, you’re right.
In fact, the ability for it to both satisfy and create audience curiosity is why I often refer to the Red Thread Throughline as your “minimum viable message.”
It’s minimum because it’s short (usually no longer than 140 characters) and viable because it contains within it both something your audience wants—something immediately relevant to them—and your new or different way of delivering it to them. You can read more about how to build your Throughline in this post or in my book, so I won’t spend more time on it here.
Now you have everything you need.
Take your first non-mysterious answer, and have some version of your Throughline ready. With those two, you can start to build what I call your “opening shot“. Since that topic also got a full write-up already, I’ll wrap up this post so you can get to work on both!
Listen, it’s totally normal to answer “What do you do?” with what’s interesting to you. But I’m guessing you want to be better than normal, at least when it comes to getting your big ideas across. To do that, remember what’s most interesting to your audience: themselves… and getting their questions answered first.Remember what's most interesting to your audience: themselves... and getting their questions answered first. Click To Tweet
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
Like this content? Be the first to get it delivered directly to your inbox every week (along with a lot of other great content, including my #swipefiles). Yes, please send me the Red Thread newsletter, exclusive information, and updates.