In A curious answer to the most common question, Derek Sivers offers the following advice to aspiring musicians:
People will always and forever ask you, “What kind of music do you do?”
You will always and forever have to answer that question. So have a good description prepared in advance.
Many musicians avoid answering by saying, “We play all styles.” No you don’t. That’s like saying, “I speak all languages.”
Many musicians avoid answering by saying, “We are totally unique.” No you’re not. If you use notes, instruments, beats, or words, you’re not totally unique.
If you give people a non-answer like this, you lose them. You had the chance to make a fan, and you blew it. They won’t remember you because you gave them nothing to remember. You didn’t make them curious.
When most musicians are asked “What kind of music do you do?”, they give a boring general answer like “a little bit of everything.” Others just pick the safest label and say “jazz” or “pop.”
If you answer in this way, according to Sivers, you’re blowing a great opportunity to create interest in your music. The purpose of answering the question isn’t to make the question go away. It’s to generate more questions about your work. If someone asks about your music, you want to give them an answer that makes them want to hear one of your songs.
Sivers suggest an answer like “it’s like the sound of fresh baked bread” or “We’re the soundtrack to the final battle to save the earth.”
These kinds of answers may not be traditional or exact, but they make people eager to explore what you have to offer.
This works for everyday careers too. Instead of saying “investment advisor” you can say “I help people figure out how to make money work for them, so they don’t have to spend all their time working for money.” When Ramit Sethi says “I will teach you to be rich”, he’s saying something that commands your attention and piques your interest
This echoes sentiments expressed by Isaac Morehouse in Tell your story, not your status:
I like to ask people when I meet them, “What’s your story?”
It’s more interesting to me than typical questions about education, major, city of origin, job title, or sports team. All of these things might play a part in their story, but story implies something much broader and more personal. It’s the narrative of your past, present, and expected future. It’s the drama of your own life as you see it playing out.
When I think of the most interesting and talented people I know, I think of their story. I don’t think of their status. “Oh, he’s a graduate student” is a status. So is, “Married, salesperson, lives in Ohio”, or, “Studying business at USC”. A status is a static snapshot of a handful of labels attached to a person based on some institutions or external standards. It conveys nothing really unique that gets to the core of the person, or the animating force behind their actions and ideas. There is no passion in it. No sense of direction and creativity.
Your story is fun, entertaining, unexpected, and lively. It’s the narrative arc of your life, your motivations, your goals, what wakes you up in the morning, and why you do what you do. It’s not a summary of past accomplishments or even current activities. It’s not a hobbies list. It’s a description of the theme playing out in your world. If you described the movie The Matrix with the typical cocktail party status approach it’d be a few bullet points like, “Guy quits job. Trained in martial arts. Solved agent Smith problem. Reads code”. Contrast that to the inspiring, unforgettable power of the same facts in story form.
Instead of taking the easy way out and hiding behind titles, challenge yourself to think about what you do in terms of experiences you create or problems you solve. Following this practice not only makes your work sound more interesting, but it also helps you think more clearly about why your work matters to others.
If your work were a song, how would you describe the style of music you’re playing?
Don’t limit your creativity to the actual work you do on a daily basis. Apply it to your narrative as well. When you talk about your projects and plans, bring your imagination and enthusiasm to the conversation.
When people ask about what you do, don’t give them a boring label or a high-sounding title. Tell them a story. A short story, but a story nevertheless. By teaching yourself to tell a better story, you’ll learn how to do better work.