How much information is needed to answer the question ‘So, what do you do?’

Last night I played tennis for the first time in 20 years, maybe more…who’s keeping track. I decided that with a recent birthday marking another decade, it was time to bring a new challenge into my life, or revisit an old one. So, I joined a local tennis club – it’s small but friendly, there are opportunities for competition, some coaching and it’s a 6-minute bike ride from my house. It’s perfect! The members were warm and welcoming and forgiving of the odd orbit-bound balls I let fly. And, as with any new community, there was the expected small talk between matches and indeed between points, which inevitably led to the question of what I do for a living.

Despite my profession, I have not yet crafted the perfect story for this. My story is undergoing constant revision and development and so new audiences such as this are an opportunity to get more feedback and further refine my story. So, I thought I would share my experiences from last night.

The one-worder: ‘writer’

My approach, and I’m not sure whether it is right or wrong, is to generally start with a one-word response to this question. It gives me an opportunity, if it isn’t immediately obvious, to gauge my audience – sort the ‘genuinely interested’ out from the ‘just being polite’ or the ‘really just want to know if you’re free during the day for a tennis game’. I find the method fast and efficient, however the risk is that sometimes the one-worder doesn’t really provide enough information to capture the other person’s interest. Alternatively, the one-word response can be misinterpreted as you not wanting to really talk about it. After all, nobody asked a lot of questions after James Bond said he was in imports/exports did they?

So last night, the first time I was asked what I did for a profession I simply said “I’m a writer”. This was met enthusiastically with the follow-up question of “Fiction?”. I could almost see the person’s vision of me sitting in a cafe, banging out my latest novel on my laptop – agonising over a latte as to which adjective best describes my hero’s jawline. I could equally see this vision shatter as I explained that I’m a science writer.

This is where things tend to go sideways for me. People have one of three responses to this: 1) a kindly “oh I see” followed by a quick change of subject, 2) a quizzical look accompanied by the flat out “what’s that?” or 3) a genuine spark of interest followed by a further round of questions. Obviously response 2 & 3 leave you open to engage further, but if I get response number 1, that’s it, I’ve lost them!

The one-liner: ‘I’m a writer that specialises in telling science stories’

Having received a couple of nods and genuine #1 responses to my one-word response last night, I tried out my one-line response, ‘I’m a writer that specialises in telling science stories’. The advantage of adding this additional information immediately was that it instantly begged further questions about whether I wrote for magazines or newspapers, or what kind of science I write about, or do I work for anyone in particular or am I freelance? Not once did I get a change of subject – so clearly, a little more information is better.

The elevator statement

Building upon the success of my one-liner, I decided to go further and try out my elevator statement. I know it’s cliché but it’s valuable nonetheless. Mine, went roughly like this:

“I tell science stories. I’m a freelance writer and I turn complicated science into compelling and engaging stories for a general audience – sometimes for magazines and websites, but I also do a lot of work for the universities directly as well.”

Perhaps it was because I had found the perfect amount of information to get across or perhaps it was the audience, but my elevator statement didn’t evoke much further discussion other than the question “so you would be free for a game during the day from time-to-time then?” Success? I’m not sure?

Too much information

After my second set last night, my muscles were feeling the pressure of not playing the game in a very long time. As I tried to write out the cheque for club fees, I almost had to steady my writing hand as the muscles in my forearm started to spasm – it was my two-handed sign if you will.

I’m not sure whether it was exhaustion or endorphins or a combination of both, but at the end of the evening when yet someone else asked me “so, what do you do?” I crossed the line into the realm of too much information. I can’t remember it word for word, but it went something like this:

“I’m a science writer. I write stories for popular science magazines, but I also do a lot of work directly for the universities. Lately, I’ve been working on developing case studies about science that is having an impact beyond academia and those stories are being used by the universities to promote their research and by research councils to show how their money is being used and to justify their funding needs to government.”

Too much information. The poor person who asked the question glazed over and I realised that I was saying too much, but it all spilled out anyway.

Telling the whole story

I thought about it on my 6-minute ride home and came to the realisation that I often talk about the magazine work that I do, but I rarely talk about the work that I do directly with the universities (except with those closest to me – then I talk about it all the time!). I’m not sure why I do this because it is, in fact, the university work that forms the majority of my business and I find the work interesting and challenging and very satisfying. Perhaps I tell the journalist story more frequently because everyone can relate to a magazine article or because it’s something tangible that I can send someone if they’re interested in what I do. Whatever the reason, it’s only part of my story.

My lesson from last night was that I need to articulate that other part of my story. It came out when I wasn’t guarded because I wasn’t thinking about what the other person might like to hear most, I was just telling it like it is. Reality is that it’s this other work that gets me up in the morning and that ticks through my head as I fall asleep at night. It’s the work that, quite frankly, helps pay the bills and is helping shape the future of research for universities across the country. It’s an important story to tell and I need to articulate it in a way that doesn’t make people glaze over. So I’ll start with my next blog post…stay tuned!



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