How to Describe What You Do with Precision and Confidence
“So, what do you do?”
Here is how to kill it every time - in three insanely simple steps. Includes free worksheet so you can get started today.
By Tim Schuster
If you are starting a new non-profit or planting a church or launching a small business, there is one question you will be asked multiple times per week (if not day). The question comes in many forms and at various times, but it always sounds like this:
What do you do?
What does your organization do?
What’s your mission?
Tell me about your non-profit.
Too often this question gives us pause or trips us up. It should be the easiest question to answer, but in my observation (and experience!), it’s often not.
We have limited amounts of time to provide the answer. Each person and audience is unique. Explaining your non-profit to a 9 year old and the CEO of a large business require different tacks (though aim for the former, and you’ll likely cover both).
The dream is landing the answer every time (and the nightmare is missing the opportunity of a lifetime).
Regardless if you have 30 seconds or 30 minutes to answer the question, there is one proven formula that will work every time. It can be adapted to person, context, and time.
It comes in a very simple, three-step process. It starts by imagining you are answering a different question.
Your organization exists to solve a problem, cure an ill, or take on a specific challenge. First thing is first: start by introducing the thing you are solving.
Here is why: Every movie you have seen starts by introducing the character and defining the problem. Every novel, too. The scene is set and the plot is introduced. By introducing this key “plot elements,” you are creating tension, and tension is a good thing if we want to capture the attention of your listener.
This is counter-intuitive. They ask “what do you do” and you are starting your answer by imagining that they asked, “What are you solving for?” or “What issue are you tackling?”.
One more thing about that issue. Give it a name. Why? Because unnamed problems rarely get solved. A problem with a name is real - and it needs to feel real with your audience.
“Many junior high kids in our city need a space to be included and to have fun after school, but they lack transportation, so they settle for what’s convenient. We call it The After-school Dilemma.”
“Many Veterans struggle navigating the resources that are readily available to them. They need help to guide them across vast bureaucracy to get the help they need. We call this The Veteran’s Last Battle.”
Now that you’ve established the issue (and captured your listener’s attention), you are ready for the next step. They want to know how you are solving The After-school Dilemma and the Veteran’s Last Battle.
After you’ve established the plot – the issue, the problem, or the challenge – they are ready (and eager) to hear about your program. Of course, you could replace the word ‘program’ here with curriculum, resource, intervention, framework, product/service, or relationship. This is the thing your organization does or utilizes to pursue your mission. It may also be a strategy, platform, or tool. What “it” is, it must be an answer to the problem in part 1.
Now, let me reiterate the main point: The “program” is where we are tempted to start when we’re asked, “What do you do?” Before you answer the question directly - by stating the ‘program’ - imagine they’ve asked you a different, more intriguing question: What problem are you solving?
By starting with the issue or problem to be solved, you have created a tiny bit of tension that needs to be resolved. We are hard-wired to look for answers. Problems need solutions. We want to know how the plot will resolve. By first introducing the problem, the articulation of the program makes much more sense and will be much clearer.
Sometimes, the most costly mistake we can make is answering the question directly. The answer to “What do you do?” needs to be set up with a problem statement. When we’ve set up a problem to be solved, we are ready to answer what do we - because what we do solves a problem, indeed.
“In order to solve this problem, we coordinate with the plethora of after-school programs to ensure that junior high students have access to transportation.”
“We are a network of trained, personal coaches who are trained and informed on the variety of government and non-profit programs available to veterans and their families.”
Now that you’ve successfully introduced your listener to both the issue and the program, you have set up what naturally comes next: the conclusion. This is where you make your living. This is where you bring it all home and resolve tension completely. Please know this has serious potential to be very inspiring!
We suggest ending with outcomes. Outcomes can include measurable results, good effects, a winning score, or a desirable conclusion. Outcomes can be stats. Outcomes can be stories.
By introducing good outcomes, you not only bring credibility to your project and mission, but you also give your reader a chance to resolve the tension you created in the beginning. And you earned the right to talk about your outcomes.
“As a result, 12 of our partner after-school programs for junior high students have seen a collective increase of 22% involvement. We can effectively solve The After-school Dilemma in two years if we get the resources we need to grow.”
“As a result, our data shows that veterans experience much less anxiety as they get resources for job training, mental health, and relationship resources.”
NOW, SPEAK WITH CONFIDENCE
This formula can be expanded to fit 30 seconds and 30 minutes. It works when speaking and in writing. It works with 9 year olds and CEO’s. While your choice of words and images will adapt to context, audience, and length, the basic rules are foundational.
So the next time you are asked, “What do you do?” Imagine they instead asked you, “What problem are you solving?” Take it from there.
As a leader, you now have the basic communication equipment to articulate your mission and message with clarity and precision. As you put this into practice, imagine the confidence this will exude in not only your organization, but also your mission.
We put together a worksheet to help your organize your thoughts.
Tim Schuster is Founder of Popup Think Tank. Many non-profit founders struggle getting early supporters. We call this The Me-to-We Problem. That is why we host and facilitate experiences that leverage the power of brainstorming to engage supporters. As a result of these events, founders are able to build communities of brand ambassadors around their mission.
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Note: This resources includes copy-paste volunteer job descriptions.