Next Time Someone Asks, “What Do You Do?” Employ This 4-Point Response

by | Jan 4, 2015

“What do you do?” It’s the age-old question that is always lurking, waiting to be asked at the next industry conference, cocktail party, and/or random encounter on an airplane.

In one way, the question is innocent and a genuine attempt to understand more about you. On the other hand, it’s a moment of truth where judgements will be levied, no matter how conscious the parties involved. Personally, I prefer the question, “What are you working on?” It’s not nearly as loaded. Yet, I can only control what I can control, which is to say I will continue face the question, “What do you do?”

Author and mentalist Tim David, writing in Harvard Business Review, outlines a four-point approach that is both disarming and effective.

When asked, “What do you do?” Mr. David suggests that you reply with:

  • A verbal slap
  • Ask a problem question
  • Go for the head nod
  • End with a curiosity statement

Let’s examine his approach more carefully:


From studying his example, I’ve managed to work out my own version of an effective reply.

What do you do?

Verbal Slap: I was an archery coach, but I couldn’t take all the traveling by van.

Ask a problem question: You know how company’s tend to annoy you with all their commercials?

Go for the head nod: You’re annoyed because the company doesn’t understand you, and they “talk down” to you.

Curiosity statement: I help companies annoy you less by getting them to hone in on genuine stories, and by using narrative techniques perfected around the campfire for millennia.