While the words used in business and conversational English are the same (most of the time), business English uses a totally different tone than its conversational sibling. Whether the format is oral or written, the business tone is mostly formal.
You may pepper in a little conversational English here and there (and this is often encouraged!), but you’ll need to address people less casually than you would a friend.
There are some words, phrases, and business English expressions that you’ll want to learn, too (but we’ll get to that later!).
Business English Tone
You’ll find that most business people use a tone that is:
When in doubt, speak in a professional tone. This shows others you’re serious about what you’re saying. It also shows that you have respect for others in the room.
You also want to sound authoritative (even if you aren’t an authority on a topic). One of the best skills you can learn in business in mirroring. If you sound excited and happy about a topic, you’ll excite others, too.
Most business English is very direct. You don’t want to speak ad nauseam about your weekend or the weather. In most English-speaking countries, time is money. You can show your colleagues you care and humanize yourself by asking about someone’s weekend; but then, move on to the topic.
You’ll also notice that most people speak with specificity when it comes to business language. Avoid using words like ‘good’ and ‘great’. Instead, say why something is good or great.
Does a product increase productivity? By how much? Show — don’t tell — your audience what you’re talking about.
Why Learn Business English
English has become the international language of business. No matter where you travel, you’ll usually encounter English as the common language of your business associates. (Though, Chinese and Spanish are helpful, too).
While English is somewhat standard throughout most English-language countries, business English can vary by country, region, and industry.
We recommend learning some of the most common words and phrases for your particular industry and make learning a habit to learn more little-by-little.
Business English Tips and Tricks
Download a Language App
Trying to learn English phrases and business English? A language translation app can help you learn new words, pronunciations, and even translate phrases for you.
Join a Business Language Exchange
While you’re trying to learn business English, there’s a good chance there are thousands of people trying to learn business phrases in your first language.
Sign up for a business language exchange, or find a language exchange partner on a site like Craigslist or a business school bulletin board.
If you’re trying to improve your presentation skills, you can always sign up for a Toastmaster’s class. This organization offers classes on public speaking — and is geared toward business professionals.
Learn how to present yourself professionally and which words to use. You’ll get real-time feedback and be able to learn a lot of phrases very quickly.
Read a Business Journal, Magazine, or Newspaper
If you’ve got a good basis for business English, you might want to increase your vocabulary by reading a business journal, magazine, or newspaper. These periodicals use a lot of business language and English idioms.
Come across a word or phrase you don’t know? Look it up online or in a language learning app.
Not only will you learn about common words and phrases, but you’ll also get some insight into your industry at the same time. That’s what they a ‘win-win’ in the business world.
Create Good Habits
You can’t learn anything off the cuff (another phrase!) unless you’re a stone-cold genius. If you really want to learn business English, you’re going to want to set aside some time each week to make it a habit.
Make a commitment each week to:
- Read a section of one business journal or newspaper
- Learn five new phrases
- Meet with a language exchange partner
- Write one business document and share it with your partner for review
- Use your business English orally during a five-minute presentation (preferably with your language partner for feedback)
It’s important not to overwhelm yourself with new knowledge. The human brain can only learn so much new information at once. When you’re learning business English, you’re not just learning the language; you’re also learning new business lingo as well as how to perform your job duties.
Common Useful English Phrases for Business
Below is a shortlist of common business phrases. You’ll notice that most of these phrases use figures of speech (and some of them stem back from as long ago as the 1800s!).
While it’s important to understand that these phrases aren’t the sum of their literal words, you can see that they kind of make sense — if you can suspend your disbelief and use your imagination.
Stay on top of: Consistently manage something or monitor it.
Example: “I want you to stay on top of the sales reports; I don’t want any surprises at the end of the quarter.
Be on the ball: Similar to ‘stay on top of’; don’t let a task get away from you.
Example: “Get on the ball by getting a head start on that report.”
Think on your toes: Think fast.
Example: “I need employees who think on their toes when it comes to last-minute problems.
Think outside the box: Think creatively.
Example: “Our next project needs to be unique; the client really wants us to think outside the box on this one.”
Get the ball rolling: Get started on a project.
Example: “Alice, can you get the ball rolling on this business meeting by explaining our challenges for the month of August?”
Brainstorm: Think of ideas.
Example: “We’re going to need to brainstorm dozens of ideas to solve this problem.”
Pull strings: Ask for help or favors from someone in a position of power.
Example: “Mandy, can you pull some strings down at City Hall? We really need the mayor on board with the zoning for that project.
Multitasking: Doing more than one task at a time.
Example: “There’s way too much to do on this upcoming project, so I’m going to need you all to multitask.”
Wear many hats: Similar to multitasking.
Example: “Brenda, I’m going to need you to wear many hats this quarter as you’ll be both office manager and project manager.”
Bite off more than you can chew: Take on more than you’re capable of.
Example: “Bob, I would love to take on both positions of office manager and project manager, but I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew.”
Industry-Specific Useful Phrases
Most industries have their own phrases and jargon they use interchangeably with regular conversational English. A few examples of such language include:
- Project management
- Bottom line
Some companies use their own branded jargon, too. Many larger companies, such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, may create language around a product, training tool, or company culture.
Why do they do this? They’re ‘marketing’ to their employees. Workers enter a different world once they enter the Microsoft campus. Everyone is wearing a ‘uniform’ (business attire), the environment feels a certain way, and you even speak differently than you do at home.
It’s simply one way to create a culture at an office.
Most companies don’t expect you to know this language — no matter if your first language is English, Korean, or Bengali. Though, employees will usually go ahead and use this language because it’s what they’ve been trained to do.
It’s always OK to ask someone to clarify or explain themselves. Doing so in the U.S. (and most other English-speaking countries) is considered a sign of respect and that you’re paying attention to the speaker and want to thoroughly understand what’s being said.
Written Business English
Just in case you weren’t confused already, written business English differs pretty significantly from oral business English. Even people that speak English as a first language often find writing business documents somewhat challenging.
The most common types of business documents include:
- Cover letters
- White papers
The good news is that most of the above documents are extremely formulaic. If you’ve read one, you’ll have a good rubric for writing a similar document yourself.
Resumes tend to be in a list format and utilize bullet points. There are a few areas where you’ll need to write a small summary — but the meat and potatoes of resumes are the cold-hard facts.
Cover letters are an opportunity to let your personality and your voice shine. They are simply a statement of intent.
Memos deliver important information without too much wordiness; white papers deliver a lot of information and tend to be extremely long.
Emails (much like a personal email) deliver information professionally and with a bit of personality.
No matter why you’re trying to learn business English, the above tips and tricks should help you prepare for your next meeting. Try to be gentle with yourself; don’t beat yourself up if you don’t understand a word or phrase that doesn’t translate evenly into your first language.
Most people who speak English as a first language don’t fluently speak any other languages, so they’re usually happy that you can communicate with other cultures.