Recently I caught up with a former colleague, who I’ll call John. Formerly a senior leader with a Fortune 100 company, John has extraordinary skills in his field. He’s also in a career transition right now—in other words, he’s looking for a new job after being laid off.

During our chat, I noticed that John was sounding apologetic for his last job, when in fact there was a really good story to tell about his achievements in his former position. The problem was that he just didn’t know how to talk about the accomplishments in a persuasive way.

I meet so many really talented people who don’t know how to talk about what they do and why they do it well. It’s a big problem because they’re selling themselves short—and it’s not only when they’re interviewing for a new job.

When you need to showcase yourself

So, here’s a trick question: What’s the best day of the week to talk about what you do? The answer: Every day! People often think the only time they need to discuss their skills and talents is when they’re job hunting, but that’s a very big mistake.

Here are a few examples of impromptu opportunities for generating interest in your skills:

  • You’re at a neighborhood barbecue, you meet a new neighbor, and he asks “what do you do?” You need to articulate a quick, jargon-free summary of your job. Why? Because your neighbor might be searching for a job himself, or his company might have that dream job you’ve always wanted, or he might turn out to be an ideal customer for you.
  • You’re in the elevator at work, the CEO gets in, and she asks, “How are things going?” Don’t say “fine.” A minute on the elevator is a golden opportunity. Instead, quickly summarize your accomplishments, relate them to value that she’s aware of, and champion your team and their contributions to the company.
  • At an industry event, you meet a peer from another company, and he invites you to have a beer. This is your chance to broaden your network. Be prepared to talk about some of your most compelling work that positions you as a thought-leader. Don’t divulge any confidential information, but use this opportunity to create a connection.

Why people struggle

The key reason people struggle to explain their professional strengths and successes is very simple: lack of preparation. Most people assume they don’t need to communicate details about their daily responsibilities. Others mistakenly believe that simply mentioning a job title is self-explanatory. Then when the stakes become high—like during a job search—they find themselves flat footed.

Many also have a mistaken belief is that they shouldn’t “brag” because it’s rude. In truth, when someone asks what you do, they usually want to know. If you have a well-prepared and concise message, you’re actually being polite by giving them what they’ve asked for. The key is to keep the focus on meeting their needs.

A special note for leaders and entrepreneurs

If you’re a leader or an entrepreneur, communication is even more crucial. The more senior you are, the more important it is because you’re responsible not just for your own career, but for those of the people who work for you. Your ability to talk persuasively about what you do influences the success of your department, or even the success of your entire company.

Prepare to talk about what you do in five steps

There are five key steps that I know help people prepare for any job communication situation—whether it’s during a low-stakes neighborhood chat or a high-stakes job interview.

  1. Prepare your “brag” list. Get in the habit of keeping a written list of your accomplishments. These should be “headline” statements that you can repeat at any time. By writing them down you’re much more likely to remember them at a moment’s notice. 
  1. Tell a simple story. All human beings think in terms of stories because it’s the easiest way for us to process information. Think up ways of talking about your accomplishments in terms of stories. Often the best construct is: a) what was the problem, b) how did you solve it, and c) what value did you deliver?
  1. Make it relevant and eliminate jargon. Match your stories to your audience. If you’re talking to your CEO, speak at her level and avoid irrelevant detail. If you’re chatting with a neighbor, speak in broader terms that make sense within the context. And keep it simple; confusing jargon is a sure way to turn off your audience.
  1. Talk about the value you deliver. Many people make the mistake of focusing on deep executional detail rather than value delivered. Focus on what problem you solve and why the company is better off because of your actions. If the listener wants more detail, then add in deeper specifics on the steps you took.
  1. Say what you want to accomplish next. One of the most intriguing ways to end the story is to focus on the future by mentioning what you want to accomplish next. Again, make it relevant to the audience. When speaking to your CEO, communicate what you and your team want to deliver next. At a job interview, talk about what your past learning has prepared you to do next. If it’s a potential customer, talk about how you’re going to deliver even more.

What’s your experience with talking about what you do? What do you find works best?