Tuesday, August 18, 2009

describing your career at the dinner table

For lots of professionals, the simple question "What do you do?" is a public-speaking stumper. That's especially true if you suspect your audience--even the small group around a dinner table or at a cocktail party--won't understand your work. This comes up a lot when I'm training scientists, so I was delighted to find this story by wildlife specialist Amy Alfieri on Under the Microscope, a website about women and science. Here's what she wrote, in part:
Just last night I was at a dinner party and faced with the usual question: "What do you do for work?" The first thing that came out of my mouth was a laugh, as though I was just asked the most awkward question in existence. Truthfully, there is nothing awkward in what I do as a wildlife specialist; the awkwardness comes from explaining it to others. How do you tell someone who works in advertising or human resources that I pull brainstems out of dead deer to test for Chronic Wasting Disease? ....Last night's audience got a toned down description of my various tasks, and I opted to elaborate on the less gruesome jobs that I do throughout the year. Nonetheless, I made it very clear how I feel about my job and why I think the work I do is important.
If this sounds familiar, it's worth taking the time to come up with a few short, simple explanations of your work and practice them. You'll then be able to feel more confident explaining your work, even in small settings--and that's a great stepping stone for the larger audience occasions to come.

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