Prepping for cocktail parties

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Transition

Having a good story changes everything.

I’ve been working with a lovely coaching client for a couple of months. She’s a senior professional working on a job search and, as an ancillary, on confidence and presence.

She’s been through the wringer this year, both personally and professionally, and was a little shaky when she first sat down in my office. She looked like she was holding it together through sheer force of will.

We started with the basics of networking in a new city. She needed a good answer to the question: “So, tell me about yourself.”

I call this question a Dreadful Question, one of several you need to be prepared to answer in a networking conversation or interview. I’ve written about preparing an answer to this question and its more social cousins (“What’s new?” and “What’s up?”) so I won’t go into the “how” here. I want to talk about the effect that having a good answer to this question can have on your career and the bigger picture of your life.

My client developed a gold nugget of an answer that sums up her strengths and career path in a convincing, logical and entertaining story. She practiced it until she could tell the story with relaxed confidence, without fighting tears.

“Can we work on something related?” she asked me. “It’s kind of silly.”

She told me a well-connected friend had invited her to a party. She wanted to make new friends and, potentially, new professional contacts. She was nervous.

“I need to have an answer to ‘What do you do?’” she said. “I don’t want to say I’m ‘between jobs’ or ‘looking for opportunities’ — that sounds so mealymouthed and defensive.”

We worked on her cocktail party answer to “What do you do?” She was smiling and glowing with confidence and pride in her career and accomplishments as we wrapped it up.

“It feels like a shell around me is cracking,” she said. “It’s like I can see daylight through the cracks.”

I asked her what she meant.

“I feel like I’ve been inside an eggshell,” she said. “Talking about how I’m great — and hearing you reflect it back to me — feels like the eggshell is breaking open. It’s glorious.”

“Everyone should go through this process,” she said. “Even if they’re not actually looking for a job.”

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.