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?