12 Business English Vocabulary Words and Phrases to Know
Business English relies on clear, direct, and simple language to effectively and efficiently communicate complex and time-sensitive ideas.
While most business jargon is unnecessary and confusing, some of it still creeps into even the best writing and business environments - sometimes, jargon becomes part of the vocabulary of Business English.
Here are some key business English vocabulary words and phrases to be familiar with:
This is the act or process of talking about all angles of something, coming up with ideas, and figuratively creating a storm of thoughts and then raining them down. Brainstorming is a good way to generate ideas, whether individually or in a group. Example: Let’s brainstorm ideas for the new product.
Elevator pitch or elevator speech
An elevator pitch is a 30-60 second mini-speech that introduces you, your idea, or your product. Imagine you are waiting for the elevator and the CEO of your dream company walks into the elevator behind you.
An elevator pitch is a very short, very concise, and very effective introduction to who you are and what you are about. It’s tailored to the audience and goal (are you trying to get a job? Sell a product? Get an audience?), but it’s helpful to plan some ahead of time, and you may be asked to develop one for a new product, service, or idea.
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High or low turnover
I always think of pancakes when I see this term, but I assure you that it is business related. Turnover is the rate at which employees are replaced. High turnover means that a lot of employees leave the company and have to be replaced. Low turnover means the opposite - that employees stay a long time and do not need to be replaced. Generally, places with low turnover are good places to work.
Pencil it in
This is a term that I use a lot, both in business and in my personal life. To pencil something in is to commit to something tentatively. Another way to say this is to plan to do something provisionally. Here’s an example: May 15th was penciled in as the date of the meeting, barring any client emergencies that day. This means that they plan on meeting that day, but they are flexible in the case of client emergencies (i.e. the client emergencies would take precedence over the meeting).
I use this term often with friends and at work when there are other factors at play that make it hard for me to commit to the meeting time. However, you want to only use this in casual situations when there is a specific reason for potentially missing the meeting.
You cannot use it with your superiors (though they can use it with you) or clients, and you want to make sure that you don’t overuse it and give off the impression that other things are more important than the person you are meeting with.
This is a mutually beneficial situation, i.e. both parties win or gain something. This term is used both in and out of business situations. Here’s a business example: The deal works for everyone. It’s a win-win situation.
Sometimes this is just called “a win-win” or used without the hyphen.
This is a commonly used phrase in email especially. To touch base is to check in or to reconnect/make contact briefly. According to Merriam-Webster, “the phrase is thought to have some relation to baseball where both runner and fielders have to "touch base" in order to be safe or record an out.”
Here’s an example that you might see in an email: Great meeting today everyone! Please work on your objectives and I’ll touch base late next week regarding your findings and setting up our next business meeting.
This phrase is often used to close emails or conversations. To reach out means to contact someone, whether via email, phone, or other means. I use this term a lot after I give workshops, meet with a student, or at the end of a call when I am helping someone.
For example, I’m so glad we had a chance to discuss your concerns today. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions or concerns, even if it’s a week from now.
Even though I use this often, I make an effort NOT to use this when working with international clients or students. It’s easy to replace this with a clearer word that has the same meaning. For example, you can say, “Please don’t hesitate to email me with any follow-up questions or concerns you may have, even if it’s a week from now.”
To think outside the box
This fun metaphor means to think creatively, unconventionally, or outside the normal perspective. It’s easy to imagine a person in a box and a person outside of a box - that visual really makes this metaphor make sense.
On the same page
This is another metaphor that has a nice visual to it. Literally, this phrase would mean all parties were looking at the same page in a book. Figuratively, to be on the same page with someone else means you and the other person have the same understanding about something or are in agreement.
You may hear this before a manager or colleague clarifies something, for example, “I want to make sure we are all on the same page about this.” You may also hear it after clarification, “Now that we are all on the same page about the problem, let’s move on to the best solutions.”
Hit the ground running
This phrase has its origins in military combat. It described paratroopers who had to start running when they landed immediately.
In a business context, to hit the ground running means to start something quickly, effectively, and with enthusiasm or energy. Maybe you prepare all week for the launch of a new product so that you can hit the ground running. This phrase generally implies that there was some preparation ahead of time so that when the start time came, you were completely ready.
Two business English vocabulary phrases to be careful with!
Some phrases are tricky to get right. The following two are tricky for different reasons.
- Looking forward to + gerund. This phrase is tricky because it seems to break the rule of to + base verb. In this case, to is a preposition, which must be followed by a noun, and gerunds can be nouns. So while it may seem awkward, it’s grammatically correct to end your email with “I’m looking forward to hearing more about this project soon!”
- It’s a pleasure to meet you. This phrase is tricky because of the word pleasure. My undergraduate students often try to use this word other ways, and it always sounds awkward and vaguely sexual, neither of which is good for business. Only use the phrase as indicated! Don’t change it at all (aside from the verb tense).
A note about business English vocabulary
Many business English vocabulary words, phrases, and English idioms have their origins in two places:
- Sports - ex. touch base, slam dunk (a perfect win), and the ball is in their court (the next action will be determined by the other party)
- Military - ex. hit the ground running, a price war (aggressively lowering prices in response to a competitor doing the same), and set your sights on something (to target something)
These two areas are a big part of culture in the United States, and they extend into the business world. If you encounter an English idiom, phase, or word that you don’t know, it’s always worth considering if it is connected to sports or the military.
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