It’s the American way.
When we meet someone new, in order to form an impression of our new acquaintance – who they are and what makes them tick – we ask, “What do you do?” In other countries, the key opinion-forming questions differ: “Where are you from?” or “Who are your parents?” perhaps. But in the US, we are what we do. And we know what we do, but how effectively are we getting it across to others?
When you meet someone new, and your new acquaintance asks, “What do you do?” how do you respond? Picture yourself in this situation. Think back to how you would typically describe “what you do.” Now think back to where the conversation went next.
Did your response engage them and spark a conversation? Do you tend to hear: “Wow! That sounds really interesting, tell me more!”
Or is your response a conversation-killer that manages to both confuse and bore? Do you tend to hear: “Oh. (changes subject)” Scientists and engineers, we are especially prone to obfuscation – our efforts to use terms that are as thorough or precise as possible usually end up far too jargony for anyone to understand, let alone want to hear more about.
In this video, chemists attempt to briefly describe what they do for the camera. Watch how their message changes before and after receiving some coaching from the American Chemical Society’s Chemistry Ambassadors program on how to “speak simply” about their jobs. It’s worth a look. Even if you’re not a chemist, you can extrapolate the resources on this website to apply to your own profession.
On the other hand, you can make your tagline too simple. Even describing oneself tersely as “tax attorney” or “software engineer” is still kind of a conversational dead end. Sure, (some) people will grasp right away all that “software engineer” entails. For everyone else, it’s jargon, and there’s nothing there to pique their curiosity to prompt them to ask more.
Your tagline can reflect an unconventional perspective on what you do. I’m a materials engineer, and since I started working in fracture testing of structural alloys, I like to tell people that “I break stuff so that hopefully you don’t have to.” My favorite is someone from a university career services office who describes herself as a “resume queen and a dentist” – because it’s like pulling teeth getting her student-clients to identify their accomplishments so she can help them make the best resume possible.
A resource to help you do exactly that is the book Make Your Contacts Count by Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon. While the ACS website will help readers describe our jobs in a way that’s easy for anyone to understand and appreciate, Make Your Contacts Count takes it to the next level. The chapter on “What do you do?” encourages readers to use that moment of introduction as an opportunity to make a solid impression as a competent, fascinating, and (most of all) memorable professional.
Perhaps more importantly, why does this matter?
Describing your job in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate (and especially remember) is a valuable tool in your networking toolbox.
First, if you’re a scientist or engineer, do your compatriots a favor and be a good ambassador for science. Everyone you meet will consider you a spokesperson for science, anyway. Help non-scientists understand how scientific endeavors connect to their daily lives and benefit them. Smash stereotypes about the mad scientist, introverted geek, or theorist unconnected from reality!
Second, everyone complains about networking events. “I never get anything out of these! Why go?” They keep doing the same things and wonder why they don’t get better results. Introducing yourself and your job in a way that is understandable and provokes further conversation is the first step to getting more out of networking opportunities. The other component, of course, is to get interested in and curious about the people you’re conversing with.
Finally, when your contacts have a clear picture of what you do (and they remember it later), they’re more likely to think of you when they come across opportunities they think might interest you and to send them your way.
What do you think? What’s your favorite way to introduce yourself and what you do in a way that’s interesting and memorable?