What Do You Say When Their Eyes Glaze Over?
It’s Christmas, and with the holiday season come the parties. Parties you attend, parties you host, even the annual excruciating office bash. No matter the event, there’s one question from which the solopreneur can never seem to escape:
So — what is it you do exactly?
It’s not just the holiday season — it happens at weddings, too. Or conferences. Or trade shows. Or any gathering where there are people you haven’t met and polite conversation must be made.
How do you answer that question?
Be honest. People who know you probably keep out of the way. Been there. Asked that. Didn’t understand the answer.
As a teacher, or a lawyer, or a home-maker it’s easy. Those are jobs that are easily understood. The question is asked and answered and the conversation flows nicely with no embarrassing silences.
But: “I’m a solopreneur”? Instant confusion.
I know. I’ve done it. I once made the mistake of doing it at U.S. Immigration. It got worse — much worse — when I told the security officer my solopreneurship was centered on chickens (my online business niche). Forty minutes later I emerged from a cold, dark security office, having been hauled over the coals about bio-security and chemical poultry washes.
Lesson learned. These days when I’m asked at US Immigration “What do you do?” I say I’m a writer. They smile and move on. It’s important to match the answer to the occasion.
Which takes us back to our party.
Are you dreading it? No, not just the bad dancing and the embarrassing sight of the boss approaching the karaoke microphone…
First there’s the look of confusion as your conversation partner tries to compute the word. “Solopreneur? I’ve never heard of that before. What exactly is it?”
You have your “elevator speech” all ready.
Business name. Mission statement. Goals. Maybe even some statistics. Then the job description: administration. Writer. Marketing. Communication. Sales advisor. Chief cook and bottlewasher, as my dad used to say. Too much work. Not enough time. Long hours. No help…
By this time your conversation buddy’s gaze is shifting towards the door. She may even be on the edge of sleep.
You can tell by the eyes. They’ve glazed over.
And at the end of it all, your audience still has no clue what you do. You can see it in her face: “I have nooooooo idea what you just said there. And I really don’t care.”
You’ve lost the chance to engage.
Out of politeness, no one’s going to run screaming from the room. But it’s hardly a sparkling conversation starter, is it? More like a Christmas Grinch.
Dull, dull, dull.
So there, in a nutshell, is your goal. Bring some light into the room.
The million dollar question is: how?
How to Do It Differently
Step 1: Learn From Meanies
Conversations about what solopreneurs do all day can easily start off on the wrong foot.
Consider two examples of ways in which people can undermine the solopreneur. They do it for a whole range of reasons — one being that they like to subvert success.
Or, being perhaps a little more gracious, they simply don’t understand.
(Ken Evoy wrote a book that covers this. It’s called “Why People Fail” and it’s available as a PDF download, here — free! Its sequel, “Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda: Turn Solopreneur Failure into Solopreneur Success,” is available at this Amazon link.)
The way my mother tells people what I do is like this:
Catherine? She plays on that blasted computer all day.
Sound familiar? The first time I heard it, I nearly had a fit. Play? Blasted computer?? All that hard work I do work from dawn to dusk? The work that earns the money that means I can treat her to things she might otherwise never see or do?
It was all too much for my blood pressure. So I decided to do something I never thought I’d hear myself say. I decided to…
“Turn that frown upside down.”
(I know. Cheesy. But hey, it’s Christmas. There’s no escaping cheese.)
I use it now to my advantage. When I’m asked what I do, here’s what I say:
“What do I do? Well, my mother would describe it as “playing on my computer all day” (I leave out the slightly iffy “blasted” word).
Then I follow it up with: “And she’s right. That’s basically what I do.”
It’s often followed by a look of complete astonishment — sometimes even disdain. But the important thing is, it starts a conversation. It might have a bit of a shaky beginning…
What — you test computer games for a living?
Nooo — you’re one of those hacker people?
But seriously — what does that even mean?
But from all of those, we can move forward into a conversation that both explains and, I hope, entertains.
Before we discuss moving on from that, consider a second common example.
“Oh! You still have a job? I thought you must be between jobs — so-and-so said they’ve seen you in your PJs in the middle of the day.”
Or “I guess this is a stop-gap until a real job comes up.”
Similar situation. Someone who doesn’t understand — or doesn’t want to understand. Someone who’s maybe, even, a little jealous?
Or, giving the benefit of the doubt (well, it is the season of goodwill) maybe just someone who thinks they’re looking out for you. Who doesn’t want to see you “throw your life away” on a job with no meaning.
Maybe it’s more to do with confusion and concern than bitterness. More to do with being immersed in a different time, a different culture: a culture that rests on the safety and security of a “job.”
But the world has changed — is changing — and, as a solopreneur, you’re changing with it. So have confidence in your response. You have a great opportunity. No need to answer defensively.
Yep — I can spend the whole day in my PJs if i decide that’s the way I want to work. I consider myself the luckiest person…
Isn’t that most people’s dream? Particularly those people caught up in the 9 to 5 world? To be able to spend the working day at home, relaxed, coffee on tap, school run sorted…
Misinformed or inaccurate (or just plain unpleasant) comments can be your way into a conversation about your life as a solopreneur.
Where to next? Or what if the conversation just starts without a hidden agenda: “Nice to meet you. Tell me what you do.”
That’s where audience engagement comes in. In an entertaining way, obviously.
Step 2: Engage Your Audience
When people ask the question, they’re often not really interested in the specifics of an answer. They’re asking as a way to find something in common that you can communicate about. If it’s family members, perhaps it’s to reassure themselves that you’re not on a path to certain self-destruction.
Your aim is to try to find a point of connection.
You won’t answer the question convincingly by giving a job description. Instead, you’re going to answer with feeling.
Consider two critical questions:
- What does being a solopreneur really, deep down, mean to you?
What do you love most about being a solopreneur?
It’s not always an easy role — being “solo” can sometimes feel isolating, unless you have a strong, supportive community behind you. It can be tiring, frustrating and sometimes discouraging.
So why is it important to you? What’s your definition of “success”?
The meaning of “success” varies wildly from person to person. It depends on our individual backgrounds, our situations, our value systems.
And it’s not always about money or practical things. In fact, for many people money is a welcome benefit, but by no means the most meaningful outcome.
Here are some things SBIers said when we asked them:
- Being able to give our son a dream childhood.
- Freedom to be with my family / to travel / to stay in my PJs / to work from wherever I want.
- Writing about something that I’m really passionate for.
- The flexibility to drive my business and my life in the way I want to.
- The excitement of knowing that my passion helps other people’s lives improve.
And this, from SBIer Leena Pekkalainen:
I dare to dream now, and act upon my dreams.
See how they’re not talking about “doing”? They’re very much about “being.” Being free. Being passionate. Being flexible. Being excited. Being able to dream.
So there we have the first question to ask yourself: not what do you do, but why you do it? What does being a solopreneur really mean to you?
- How does being a solopreneur make you feel?
When you have an answer for that first question, move on to the second, bearing in mind some sage advice from Maya Angelou:I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.Click To Tweet
In other words, think not about what you do, but how what you do makes you feel.
Think about the passion you have for your niche — not just for the topic itself, but for how it affects people’s lives. How does that feel?
Because communicating your passion, your excitement, your energy — your light — will energize your conversation buddy.
(By this time, don’t be surprised if you have a whole group listening in!)
They’ll leave that party feeling invigorated, stimulated, maybe even motivated to think about where their path in life is taking them. How they want to feel.
Being a solopreneur is not primarily about the doing. Of course, the doing is important — there’s no one else to do it all if not you.
But the important element is why you do it, and how that makes you feel. What drives you to jump out of bed each day feeling that your world is a great place to be?
Don’t start to sound obsessed, though. You may love your niche but remember, not everyone shares the same love for tropical terrapins or the latest WordPress plugins that you do.
Some more thoughts from SBIers:
The number of people who write to me each and every day telling me how much my information-packed website has helped them makes me feel humbled.Patty Knutson, Vegan Coach
I wake up excited every morning. There is nothing like the sense of accomplishment that I feel when I learn something new or master a new skill.Crystal Maleski, Make Dinner Easy
I now have a business that I can grow over the years. A business that is fun. I’ll never do a 9 to 5. I’ll always own my own life.Nori Evoy, Anguilla Beaches
What are your feelings about being a solopreneur?
Step 3: Plan Ahead
Rehearse your script:
You don’t want a formal script to work to. Not at a social event. But you do need a clear idea of what you want to say. And if you’re at a conference that may have some impact on your business, it’s even more critical.
What you’re writing is an emotional job description. So start here:
Officially, my job is…
And then, move quickly onto:
What that actually means is I … and I can…
And finish up with something like this:
That’s a great place to be, because it makes me feel…
Acknowledge the difficulties:
Life and solopreneurship, of course, are not always like that. We all have our down days, and creating a successful online business can be frustrating at times, isolating at others.
So sure — be positive. Share the passion. Create the spark that lights a room. Grab your audience’s attention.
But think beforehand about whether you might benefit from asking for help, too. It’s not a sign of failure — no one can do everything a solopreneur has to do, in isolation, and keep their equilibrium. If you don’t have a support network, maybe now’s the time to create one.
Plan an answer to the demands of family and friends:
It’s not just parties, and answering a directly asked “what do you do” question. Sometimes it’s more subtle than that.
It’s the telephone call when you’re in the middle of writing an important piece of content: “I just need you to help me choose the Christmas tree / pick up my laundry / take me to the doctor / pick the kids up from school…”
Or the knock on the door from a friend at a loose end / needing marriage guidance / wanting to go carol singing / trick or treating with you…
All of which stems from a similar misunderstanding. If you don’t leave the house to “go to work” you don’t have a real job, and you must, therefore, be available.
That misunderstanding has to be put right.
Because what you do is full of wonder and magic and potential. You do it because you love to do it, and because it makes you feel a huge sense of achievement.
But you’re not writing your content as some kind of curious hobby you can pick up and put down as the mood strikes.
You’re creating a — hopefully successful — online business. A business you’re passionate about, but a business nonetheless.
So be prepared. Set your business hours and make clear they cannot be disturbed except in emergencies.
The answer to the “what do you do” question in these circumstances may have to be a little stronger.
- Think about what you’re going to say before the event. After all, it may turn into a business opportunity.
- On no account talk, detail by excruciating detail, of the ins and outs of your work. Make sure you have engaged your audience emotionally so that they want to know more.
- If talking about your feelings all sounds a little too vague and airy-fairy, start the conversation by sharing what you do, or what your job title is. But keep it short. One sentence. No more than thirty words.
- Then talk about why you do what you do. And about how what you do makes you feel.
- By all means share your passion for your chosen niche, but don’t be scary about it.
- Make clear if you need to that being a solopreneur is not a hobby. It’s a business. It’s a happy place, yes. And it’s a happy place with earning potential. It can’t be trifled with.
And finally — most importantly — watch out for eyes glazing over at your parties this season. Don’t turn what could be a perfectly nice social event into a yawning bore-fest.
And whichever celebration you’re going to — have fun!