Imagine an event where each attendee is given a puzzle piece and directed to connect one-at-a-time with others in the room to see whether their pieces fit together. Though such a laborious process sounds absurd, it describes exactly how most networking meetings work. We jump from person-to-person (bouncing off the realtors and financial managers who collectively make up a third of the people there) hoping against hope to find someone who needs our services. Moreover, everyone is there to sell; nobody comes to a networking event to buy.
“So… um … (squints at my name tag) … Dave … What do you do?” is my least favorite of the questions that droozle out of people’s mouths at such events.
I have a confession to make: I don’t care what you do … and you don’t care what I do, either. Tell your unique value story to put an end to awkward business introductions.
A story is a metaphorical ship that sails from the rocky, stormy seas of conflict to the safe port of transformation. When asked to describe ourselves in terms of what we do—whether it’s steering, navigating, or scrubbing the deck—we answer with a description of the processes, ingredients, and data we confront each day to earn a living. In storytelling parlance, these things are all conflicts. Unless we’re in the same industry, the conflicts you face and the conflicts I face in pursuit of a paycheck are probably not much alike—and therefore not much of a basis for connection.
Compelling stories lead from conflict to transformation. Ads showing black lungs don’t stop people from smoking, and ads showing crashed cars and burned houses don’t sell insurance because they feature conflicts. Show us a handsome, physically-fit person striding up a mountain or confident parents of young children standing in front of their home. These are outcomes—transformations. Give us health, longevity and safety—not freedom from emphysema and unplanned conflagration. These goals are authentic because we all want them. A story of meaningful transformation is authentic, interesting, and engaging because it touches on something we all care about.
What you do is only a means to an end.
What do you do to facilitate other people’s transformation?
Someone wise and delightfully mischievous once said, “Never answer the question as stated.” Stories are always about people. If we change the dreaded “What do you do?” to, “What do you do for people?” we provoke a different and more interesting response. If you’re a dentist, I won’t care that you drill people’s teeth all day, but I’ll love that you help people stay healthy and feel confident when they smile. If you’re a gas station attendant, I won’t care which pump model you use or which oil company issues your paycheck, but if you love the smiles you get when you add a dash of convenience and comfort to people’s lives, I’ll love to hear about it. If you’re a patient advocate, I don’t want to hear how you navigate the seas of incompetence, insurance, and medical billing, but stories of how rewarding it is to make sure patients get the care and benefits they need will keep me engaged.
The most powerful, meaningful, and mysterious element of story is magic—wind—the invisible force that blows the ship from conflict to transformation. It doesn’t matter who you work for or what your job title is. Nobody cares. What is your own unique combination of skills, talents, insights, education, and expertise that allows you to help others achieve meaningful transformation? Are a you a deep listener who saves and revitalizes marriages by teaching couples how to communicate? Are you an accountant who saves people money and reduces stress by helping them navigate the seas of taxation? Are you an educator who has a special talent for teaching left-brained skills to right-brained people who helps designers be comfortable and productive working on-screen? Your most compelling introduction story—your unique value story—is about your magic—your special superpowers that enable you to help others achieve transformation within their stories.
“I use (insert your magic powers) to help (insert people who need you) achieve (meaningful outcomes).”
If you’re one of those good folks who really believes you are just a dentist or just a gas station attendant or just a family therapist, you are overlooking your Unique Value Story. A million people do what you do, but only one does it quite the way you do it—and all those others are telling that boring “What I do” story. What an opportunity!
The next time someone asks, “What do you do?” have your unique value story ready. And if you’re asking first, try, “What do you offer?” See if the conversation doesn’t get right down to an exchange of magic possibilities.