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Answering That God Awful “So What Do You Do?” Question As a Writer

“So what do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

*pause*

“Oh…cool.”

*both parties sip their drink in silence*

Annnnnddd…scene.

Man, I hate that “So what do you do?” question. Partially because most people are equally as bad as answering this question and can also be really guarded about it. But mostly, I’ve learned that one of the fastest ways to piss a conversation down your leg is to say you’re a writer.

Sure, you know in your heart’s heart that you are a writer and it’s what you do, but humor me for a second: it just doesn’t get the same rise out of people had you instead said you were a weight loss specialist or Batman. Alas, it is a necessary dance, so if we’re going to tango we should at least do it right to make a good first impression.

The fact of networking, life, and small talk is, what you say matters almost as much as how you say it. I’m not saying you need to lie and be scummy. What you say should definitely be true and positive, but it should also be worded in a way that makes people want to know more. This could change slightly depending on whom you want to be interested in you and how you want to be perceived.

Friends, I’m alluding to positioning.

Positioning is the art of introducing yourself in such a way that you get a positive response. In most cases, you’re revealing the benefits of what you do, not literally what you do (more on that in a bit).

And Hard Mode here is to also make it push past built-in stereotypes and associate yourself with something immediately familiar and positive. It’s why it’s so effective for some people to refer to themselves as “author” or “#1 New York Times Best-Seller”, or attach themselves to reputable media outlets.

Of course, not all of us are #1 New York Times Best-Sellers or associated with big-name media. To make matters worse, the average attention span is about as long as a fart. So defining what we’re about in very little time is incredibly challenging. The goal, then, is to create intrigue and the opportunity to explain more about what you do in as little time as possible…and that’s why I came up with the Clickbait Test (trademark).

Using the Clickbait Test in Real Life

You’ve probably seen “clickbait” in your Facebook feeds, or hell, you’ve probably written a clickbait headline yourself. A clickbait headline is so irresistibly juicy that the person cannot help but be curious (and maybe even hate themselves a little for clicking), even if they already knew the answer.

Of course, people aren’t clicking on you in real life, but what I’m saying is to treat your self-introduction as a clickbait headline. It has three main qualities:

  1. It teases, but withholds crucial details.
  2. It makes people curious.
  3. It solves a problem.

In other words, think about what would make you want to know more and click. Write down what you do in headline form, including what you write about, who you write for, and why you write, and rearrange these in 15-20 different ways. They don’t have to be perfect, which is why I’m recommending a lot of them.

Choose a couple that appeal to you most and ask yourself, “Would this give people this crazy itch to click? Would click on this?” And if what you come up with doesn’t pass your Clickbait Test, then try again.

This intro has worked really well for me for most people, like friends of friends:

I’m a digital nomad who works from anywhere as long as I have internet. 

Full stop. It’s simple and short.

At this point, most people expect me to go on, but I’ve withheld information and the “working from anywhere” inspires curiosity, especially if the person is around my age. I let the brief silence settle in (though it took me a long time to be okay with silence). And usually two things happen:

  1. If the person has heard of a digital nomad, they will likely be very intrigued by or envious of my ability to work from anywhere while making that chedda, and usually wants to know more about the specifics of what I do. Once they’re baited, I usually tell them, “I write for Lifehacker.com and manage a couple of websites.” And the hooks are fully in.
  2. If the person has never heard of a digital nomad, they will more than likely probe further. I usually jokingly say, “It’s a really douchey way to say I travel the world while working out of my laptop.” Then it goes full circle to “what do you do as a digital nomad?”

But if I am talking to a fellow digital nomad or someone more tech-savvy, I might say:

You might’ve seen my articles giving self-help advice on Lifehacker.com. 

When I was with IGN.com or Bodybuilding.com, it was:

Oh, I play and write about video games for IGN.com.

Or,

I’m an editor at the fitness website Bodybuilding.com. I help change lives.*

* That was Bodybuilding.com’s slogan.

If you write about science or something, you might say:

I help people make sense of all this science information on <whatever site>.

And on and on it goes. You get the gist. Notice here that I gave examples of the benefits people might get as a result of my work. As I mentioned in my post about harsh truths, people only want to know what you can offer them. But also, they want to know you’re a writer who just isn’t publishing “Dear Diary…” posts into the ether.

The goal of answering the “So what do you do?” question is not to word vomit what you do in one go, but to get people curious enough so that you actually do have the chance to talk more about your writing. Otherwise, a “writer” or “freelance writer” is just a boring, blanket label.

Ultimately, as a writer, you’re still a business and you need to be able to tell someone that you’re worthy of being acknowledged. On the other hand, if I have no interest in talking about what I do, then I shut down the conversation by saying I’m a writer. It works to my advantage sometimes, too.

Cover image credit Drew Coffman.

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