Imagine the following conversation:
You: "Hi there, so what do you do?"
Them: "I'm an accountant."
You: "Oh cool."
Did you notice that? You asked what they do, and they responded with what they are.
The danger of putting people into buckets
If they "are" a well-known profession, we immediately have an idea of what they do, even though they didn't tell us what they do.
Telling people what you are is a convenient shorthand for saying a lot in a few words. By telling people what we are, we assume they're going to know what we do. They can then put you in their bucket labelled "accountant" and dismiss what may otherwise have been an interesting conversation - or a lead for your business.
A couple of blog entries ago I gave the example of meeting someone at a networking event. If they reply "I am an accountant" you know what they do, and if you're not an accountant yourself chances are you're going to look for the bar.
But if they replied "I help businesses cheat the tax man legally" you're interested, right? You're smiling (because that is just a little bit funny) and you want to know more. And there you have a conversation.
My dad was an electronic technician
That sounds pretty boring until you hear what the entailed: he designed and built wave riders.
Wave riders are marine research instruments that measure wave heights in the open sea. The instruments not only measure wave heights, they also track other things (like temperature) and where they are (using GPS). They periodically transmit the data they collect up to a satellite from where it can be downloaded to a research facility.
These things literally went all over the oceans, which also gave researchers a pretty good idea of how the major sea currents worked. For a young kid the world maps with the courses the instruments followed were real pretty. (I guess they would still be.)
Now if he had told me he builds wave riders (instead of saying he was an electronic technician), that would have been a lot more intriguing. My dad is now retired and still plays with electronics.
What you do can not always be explained by telling people what you are
What you do can actually be interesting to other people. But unless you're something exotic like a shark wrangler, the label you put on yourself is usually a lot less exciting.
And it's dangerous too. Not everyone has the same understanding of what a lepidopterist is (they study or collect butterflies and moths). Or even a web designer. Or a marketer.
So if you want to engage people in conversation (and help grow your business), find a way to describe what you do rather than telling people what you are. (Unless of course you really are a shark wrangler. That would be cool.)
Here are a few things that can help
Be memorable. The purpose of telling people what you do rather than what you are is to be memorable. If what you do is interesting, you are memorable and they will remember you when they have a need for your services or someone they're talking to does.
Make it about the problem you solve for people. If you're looking to grow your business, make it about the problem you solve for your clients. Then it's about them and their problems, and they're much more likely to engage you in conversation.
Keep it short. There's nothing more boring than someone who drones on at length about what they do if you're not really interested.
Inject some humour. My friend Anthony mentioned this one: "I'm a corporate undertaker" (from an insolvency practitioner). Humour is memorable, relaxes people and engages them in conversation.
What you are is not what you do
It's tempting to use that shorthand, and sometimes it is the right thing to do.
But when people ask you what you do, tell them what you do. It's way more interesting, engaging and memorable. And it may just lead to your next client, or the next big thing.