Of all the small-talk questions people usually ask, the one I avoid asking is “What do you do?” I’m not interested in people’s job titles, which rarely lead to conversations. You know how it goes: “What do you do?” “I’m an IT consultant.” “Oh.” If you’re particularly diligent, you might ask a number of questions like “What kind of consulting?” “Software.” It’s like pulling teeth, and it doesn’t tell me anything about what lights people up.
When people ask me, “What do you do?”, I often answer that with something along the lines of “My passion is helping people connect and collaborate,” followed by a brief description of what I do and maybe a recent story showing how I work.
I picked up that tip from Make Your Contacts Count, where the authors advised people to introduce themselves using the “best-test” structure: teach people what you’re best at, and show them a test of that.
But I usually like preempting the question of “What do you do?” with a question of my own: “What’s your passion?” That makes people stop and think. If I know someone already, I ask, “What have you been excited about lately?” It’s much better than “How are you?” because the other person actually thinks about the answer instead of just tossing off the customary “Good. How are you?”
Mireille Massue sent me this link to 25 Passion-Finding Questions to Invite Someone to Talk about What They Love. The list has lots of variants on the questions I like asking. Pick a couple of those questions and use them in your next conversation, and see how much more interesting things get!