How To Answer Your Uncle's, and Everyone Else's, Question

So, what do you do?

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"So…what are you studying these days?" Without fail I got that question every Thanksgiving break in college. While the question usually came from a well-intentioned relative making small talk, it always felt aggressive to me, accusatory -- cut the pleasantries and get down to what you're actually doing at that hippy-dippy liberal arts school.

In college, this question is easily evaded. Describing my senior thesis, for example, on agrarian sexuality in Faulkner and Morrison pretty much ended that conversation. "Oh…that sounds interesting."

In the years after graduation, though, you will start getting asked, "What do you do?" Similarly polite, similarly scary. The difference is, your relatives won't be the only people asking now. No matter where you are -- a concert, a laundromat, a friend's friend's birthday party -- you will meet this question. And unlike in college, you don't want to avoid it.

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Expressing who you are and what you do is crucial to success in "the real world." Your response might not matter to a buzzed stranger at a bar -- it most certainly will to a potential connection or a prospective employer.

Defining yourself is not easy. Especially for those of us entering into the occasionally hazy world of advertising. Engagement, awareness, buzz -- it's no wonder some people get confused and call it nonsense. When I used to get asked what I do as a digital strategist, I would reply with a laugh, "Your guess is as good as mine." Don't make that mistake. Here are some pointers:

Plan your response. You should know the answer to "what you do" before the question is even asked. Try to write it out on a piece of paper. If you get stuck, make a list of your main accomplishments or skills and connect the dots.

Choose your words carefully. In casual conversation, the words you use to describe yourself might not matter so much. In professional settings, though, there isn't the same room for ambiguity. Get in the habit of using the right words and there should be no need to say, "you know what I mean."

Prepare examples. Even if you know what you "do" and have the right words to describe it, some people won't get it. Because of this, it's helpful to come ready with examples. If you tell people you have experience in "experiential marketing," elaborate with, "for example, I passed out promotional materials and acquired email registrations at burlesque shows." For example.

Most important, don't be afraid to be serious about yourself. Stand by your self-definition -- if you're not going to defend it, an employer definitely won't. Facing this question head on will get you at least a turkey leg, at most a new job.

About the Author

Ethan Scott graduated from Kenyon College and works as a strategist at Firstborn, a digital agency headquartered in TriBeCa.

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