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6 Ways to Describe What You Do When You Can't

04/08/2015 11:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

We've all heard it and rolled it our eyes.

And some of us, if we're brutally honest, have heard ourselves say it at one time or another -- maybe when we were first starting out -- and inwardly cringed.

If you're an entrepreneur, marketer, business owner, author, maker, doer, blogger, artist, then you've been in a room full of people and heard this:

"What do you do?" or it's sexier cousin, "What is your business/book/invention/startup all about?"

And the answer?

"Well, it's kind of...um, sort of like, you know when you have to do (x) and it's really hard and you always wished there was a way to...well....hmm, it's a little complicated... (pause) Oh, oh, oh! Have you heard of this other company/book/blog? Yeah, it's kind of like that -- but completely different. I don't know...it's... KIND OF HARD TO EXPLAIN."

No. Not acceptable. If you can't explain your business or the plot of your next juicy best-seller, then you have not thought through it enough yourself. You can't expect people to buy your stuff if they don't know understand it. Period.

Unfortunately, I hear this kind of talk way too often at networking events or from prospective clients.

When asked any variation of "What do you do?" you have to have an answer ready. Even if you're just starting out on a project. Even if you've only written Chapter One. Even if you are launching your business two months from now. Even if you're taking six months off from work to backpack through Europe (perfectly acceptable and highly encouraged, by the way).

In film and television, this is known as a log line. It's a summary of what the project is about with a short emotional "hook" added in for intrigue. For business, it's often referred to as an elevator pitch. But I'm also talking about something much more basic. I'm talking about you taking the time to define and articulate what you do. Why?

  • You need a sense of direction
  • Potential buyers need to know what value it provides and if it's right for them
  • Everyone needs to know if they know someone else for whom this might be perfect, even if it's not for them.

It does no good to talk about your business, book or other project to others if they won't get it. The burden is on you to communicate what you do in a way people will understand.

As Albert Einstein famously said, ""If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." This is true whether you are a life coach or a large tech company. If you're a government think tank or an Etsy seller.

Here are 6 ways you can describe what you do:

Simplify: Stop overcomplicating things! Keep it simple. Don't try to get too clever, fancy or detailed at the highest level. Give them just enough information to intrigue and inform without requiring a doctorate degree in your subject area. If they are interested, they will dig deeper. You don't have to try to explain every nuance of your work in the first 30 seconds. Some examples:

"I'm an accountant who serves as a virtual CFO for small business owners."
"I'm a life coach who helps women in transition discover their next big adventure."
"My book is about one woman's journey to reclaim her confidence and identity after a brutal assault in her own home."
"I create paintings and mixed media art that showcases the details in nature that often get overlooked."
"Our software helps large companies blend, analyze and share data so they can make better business decisions."

Ditch the Jargon and Acronyms: Pretend you are describing your work to that 6-year-old whom Einstein references. If you were an accountant, you wouldn't bust out statements like accrual basis, P and L or EBITDA, would you? If you're writing a self-help book about how to keep brain function sharp as you age, you wouldn't lead with medical terms that the Average Joe (your intended reader) doesn't understand, would you? Unless you were in a room full of neurologists, which takes us to...

Know your audience: If you're a life coach with a spiritual bent and you're at a party full of women who adore Oprah's Super Soul Sunday, you can speak a slightly different language than if you're attending a seminar on start-up business financing. It's okay to have variations of the "What do you do?" answer -- but start with at least one coherent one!

Use analogies: Just like the log line I mentioned earlier, when you pitch screenplays or TV pilots, development people love to hear something like, "It's The Walking Dead meets House of Cards meets Twilight." Why? It gives them a reference point. If your work is really that difficult to understand, help people out by providing an analogy for them. Some examples:

"It's a cookbook for people who want Barefoot Contessa-inspired dishes on a 30-Minute Meal kind of timeframe."
"We are the Audrey Hepburn of design agencies: Our work is graceful, elegant and timeless.
"I'm like the Dr. Phil of personal trainers: I get real, say what needs to be said and help you do the work so you can get the results."

Lead with Benefits: Perhaps you can describe your complicated work or book by first stating the benefits it gives to people. What needs do you fulfill? If people are intrigued, then you can tell them more about how you do it later. Some examples:

"I make it easy for folks without green thumbs to create beautiful gardens."
"I help people get control over their retirement planning so they can stop stressing and start living."
"I teach women how to hear, listen to and trust their intuition again after loss."
"This book will gives busy people a step-by-step guide to eating better so they can start feeling better."

Describe the Pain Points You Remove: Everything we do is designed to increase pleasure or decrease pain. So instead of leading with benefits as stated above, you could share what pain your work takes away. Based on your audience, you'll have to decide which way is more compelling for people. Some examples:

"I do your taxes so you can stop drowning in paperwork and receipts and focus on your business."
"I save marriages by taking care of all the household chores neither party wants to do but both tend to argue over."
"I coach corporate teams on how to end communication snafus, power grabs and bureaucratic red tape so they can be productive, motivated and energized at work."

Hopefully this will spark some ideas for your answer the next time someone asks you "What do you do?"

Helpful? Please tweet me @redslice and let me know.