It’s a simple question, really, and one that we all get asked on a regular basis.
Regardless of who’s asking, the answer is usually quick and stock: I’m a designer…a lawyer…a chef… I think those stock answers miss both the point and the underlying opportunity.
I first realized the importance of having a better answer when I attended a conference about how to approach venture capital people. During breaks, some of the biggest VCs in the world would stand on a kind of soapbox where people would jockey for position to give them a 60-second pitch.
Watching that process was an amazing education.
The VCs accepted the business cards of those who did a really good job describing their audience, the problem they solved, and their path to revenue. They rejected those who fumbled through their minute using too many complicated words and acronyms and talking vaguely, if at all, about the things that are of obvious interest to a VC.
That made me realize that answering the question, “What do you do?” isn’t really as straightforward as we think it is. While developing a good response can be challenging, it’s worth the effort. Even so, it’s only half of the story. The other half is understanding what the question actually represents, and that’s a better place to start.
Like many of us, I struggled to find a good way to describe what I do—some call it an elevator pitch; I prefer to think of it as a mini value-proposition. I really felt the tension flow away from the exercise when I began to think of that question more as an invitation to conversation; an ice-breaker and a foot in the door in many cases.
Looking at it that way, it made sense to take a decision-tree kind of approach that gives me multiple options for matching my response to the circumstances.
For example, if it’s truly like an elevator where you have 30 seconds to answer what you do, then you pretty much have to do that. But if you’re going to be sitting next to someone in a conference for most of the day, you may want to parse that into pieces and let it go a little more on the basis of questions and answers.
It’s also important to adjust the answer to the audience. There’s a real difference between pitching someone like a venture capitalist versus meeting someone for the first time and hoping you can design a brand identity for them.
The next question is how many options do you need? I’ve found that three work well; a short, a medium, and a long answer. The almost-instantaneous assessment of who you’re speaking with, what you know about them, where you are, how much time you have, etc., dictates which of the three you lead with.
So how do you develop your decision tree of answers? There really is no shortage of people out there who are willing to give you their expert advice about how to answer the question or write an elevator speech. Most of the advice focuses on a smooth rattling off of your job-related services—“logos, branding, websites…design, development, production…”
However, apart from when your Uncle Harry’s asking what you do over a holiday cocktail, the main point of your conversations is finding out if you’re a good fit for a prospective client and if they’re one for you. I think that’s the crux of the matter. It’s the first step in the dance to determine if there’s a good fit and worthwhile chemistry for mutually profitable business.
This means that better answers address the problems you solve, and how what you offer differs from what people are accustomed to hearing in the marketplace.
To develop answers like these, an exercise I like is to list 20 possibly unique solutions that you provide or problems you solve. Try to be creative with it and think a little bit outside your day to day vernacular.
Then boil the list down. First cut it in half, and then boil that down to three. From those three things, you’ll probably find that you have something that at least seems to make sense and is useful in answering the question, “What do you do?” in a way that’s adaptable to various situations.
One other thing you may consider: hire a good writer to help you create your mini value-proposition. Coming in with fresh eyes and ears, and not burdened by the internal thinking that you’ve applied to the process, a good writer can help you identify the nuggets and articulate them cleanly.
Now you know how and why I came up with the statement on ideascape’s home page: We use strategy, design and technology to create opportunity and improve your bottom line.
What do you do?