It’s the icebreaker question, ‘What do you do?’ It seems like a simple question, but it’s often difficult to explain our life’s work to strangers. Our workplace is defined by acronyms, our comfort zone is among our peers who share a common language.
It was the dilemma writer Elizabeth McCracken expressed in a 2014 tweet.
“21 years into a publishing career & I still have no idea what to say when someone says, “A writer? Have I heard of anything you’ve written?”
Maybe it’s not just the question, but the response we get when we attempt an answer. It’s the incorrect assumptions folks hold when they have a passing familiarity with a career.
Lincoln Michel used the query to imagine ‘If Strangers Talked to Everybody Like They Talk to Writers’.
“There is something unique about the way people talk to writers. Strangers seem very willing to offer career advice — “self-publishing is where the money is!” — literary advice — “People love vampires!” — or to oddly ask you to guess what work they’ve read in their life and if any of yours is among it. It got me thinking about what it would be like it people talked about other professions in this way.”
“Huh. A chef. Do people still eat food?”
“An accountant? Wow, I haven’t even looked at a number since high school.”
“Software programmer? Like, for actual computers sold in stores or just as a hobby?”
It’s not just writers. Most of us have embarked on career paths that carry with them a variety of inaccurate stereotypes.
Is it possible to craft an answer that informs, clarifies and avoids unsolicited advice?
Yes, and it’s storytelling without revealing the ending.
First, decide what you want to share about your work. Then imagine you are describing what you do to aliens. Finally, think function, product, audience and benefit.
Let’s go back to the writer, who may want to keep their work confidential, and avoid unsolicited feedback.
Authors are familiar with providing ‘soundbite’ summaries of their work to ‘sell’ a book proposal, and can employ the same technique to describe their work. For example: “I’m a writer and I recently completed a memoir that will be released in the fall. My next project is a profile for a weekly magazine which involves travel to Austin, Texas next week. Have you been to Austin? Can you suggest any good restaurants in the area?”
This sample response answers the question without divulging confidences, describes the work in familiar terms and redirects the conversation to connect on another, recognizable topic, food.
Who knew writers accumulate frequent flyer miles, get stuck in long TSA lines and patronize fashionable restaurants?
In crafting your response, consider your audience. How likely are they to be aware of your work? This is not about ‘dumbing down’ an answer, but about connecting through shared language and experience.