25 ways to improve your business English for effective communication at work
Is your English holding you back at work? Do you want to improve your business English for more effective communication? It is easier than you think! In this expert guide, we walk you through 25 simple methods that you can use each day to enhance your professional English.
START – Defining your target language and setting realistic goals
“Business English” is a general term for the formal variety of English used in professional working environments. However, the English you use at work may also fall under the category of “ESP” – or English for Specific Purposes – if it relates to a professional niche with a precise set of terminology. For example, if you are a Financial Analyst, you may be required to use some general business English in your daily communications, but you may also need to be familiar with a highly specific set of jargon related to markets, statistics and other areas of your work. It is often the case that one type of English does not cover all of the bases. Consider the following tips:
It all starts with a list! If you want to improve your professional English, start by making a list of situations in which you use the language at work. Do you require general business English or ESP? In most cases, the answer will be: a bit of both. Try to be as specific as possible when writing your list as this will help to pinpoint where improvements need to be made.
Set some clear goals Think of fluent English as an important “stepping stone” in the advancement of your career. Set clear targets with your business English as you would with your other projects at work. This will help you stay motivated in the long-run and will yield better results.
Be realistic about your time and progress Business people are often “busy-ness” people! Time is always the enemy, especially if you have family as well as work commitments. Therefore, it is important that you set yourself realistic targets in terms of the time you are willing to devote to your English and the results you can then expect to receive.
Any time, effort and money you “invest” in your business English will be rewarded with improved fluency later on. Be consistent with your studies (no breaks!), focus on step-by-step progression (today, tomorrow, etc.), and you will see significant long-term gains.
Schedule in some English Reserve x3 “mini breaks” each day to take a timeout for your English. For example, 15 minutes during breakfast to watch the latest business news via the internet, 10 minutes over lunch to review your latest vocabulary list, 30 minutes in the car on your way home from work to listen to an audiobook about a topic that really interests you.
EXPLORE – Seeking out real business situations in which to practise
If you want to improve your business English and communication skills for work, you need to actively seek out opportunities to gain practice. While some language skills can be acquired in isolation, spoken fluency is not one of them and this is especially the case with business communication as it often requires you to employ a certain etiquette and use words or constructions selectively based on situations. This is further complicated when we consider some examples of intercultural communication issues that arise when doing business internationally. There is no substitute for real-world experience when it comes to using English in a business context, so take every available opportunity!
Travel on business One of the best ways to improve your business English is to remove the option of communicating in your native language. In other words, to place yourself in situations in which you are forced to use English – like it or not. Travelling abroad for work is a great example of this. In addition to speaking practice, business trips can provide you with a valuable understanding of how your overseas colleagues interact at work and in their down time.
Prepare for a conference Today there are conferences, conventions, trade shows and training events for all types of professional activities. These offer you the opportunity to learn new things, but also to network in English with other colleagues and potential business partners. Why not kill two birds with one stone and develop your professional skills while also practising your business English? If your company has a stand, volunteer to help run it!
Do a presentation in English Presenting well in public can be tough, but how about doing it in a foreign language? For many learners, this is their worst nightmare! However, the only way to gain confidence with your spoken English is to confront your fears and overcome any psychological barriers to communication. Start with an audience of one – write and check your presentation, then read it in front of the mirror at home when no one else is around. Try it again with a couple of relatives and get their feedback. Now ask a few colleagues in your department to be your audience. Improve your content and delivery using this method. By the time you come to do your presentation at a conference or in front of a larger audience, you will be “a natural”!
READ – Laying the foundations for effective communication
Reading regularly in English is important because it helps improve your understanding of grammar, while also expanding your active and passive vocabulary. If you read about the same business topics each week, you will soon develop a better knowledge of any associated words, expressions and constructions because they are constantly repeated in the text. If you read a lot in your mother tongue, why not switch to English content at least some of the time? Try the following tips:
Search for English websites that are really worth reading When choosing content to read in English, it is important that it is interesting and relevant to YOU. Try searching for websites related to your professional activities, companies you would like to know more about, or successful business people you admire. Perhaps also explore any associated forums or social media pages to participate via comments. Write down new vocabulary and translate it. You will find that a lot of modern business terminology has been “borrowed” into other languages from English, but pay close attention to any differences in usage and pronunciation.
Keep a personal business English notebook where you can write down new words and expressions with examples in context. Alternatively, use a mobile app (like Wordsteps) to compile vocabulary lists and schedule weekly tests.
Read work-specific literature or documentation This may not always be the most interesting material available in the English language, but reading professional or technical documents, books, manuals, regulations, etc. is a good way to improve your understanding of work-related jargon and its practical usage.
Learn some phrasal verbs and idioms commonly used in business It is worth making the effort to learn some work-related idioms and phrasal verbs as these are often used by naive speakers in business situations. While these expressions can make your English sound more natural, they also have the potential to cause embarrassment if used incorrectly or in the wrong context. Therefore, the best advice is to learn them in context and with 2-3 real examples of correct usage.
Dip into a textbook Textbooks are of value, but not if they reduce your motivation to study. Unfortunately, the majority of textbooks out there today are either boring or irrelevant to the needs and interests of most learners. For this reason, you must be selective when making your choice. Opt for a textbook that allows you to dip in and out at any time, with answers in the back for self-correction. English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy is a good example, as is the Professional English in Professional English in Use series published by Cambridge University Press.
WRITE – Presenting a professional image with your written English
Written communication plays a central role in the business world and, although paper-based formats have largely been replaced by electronic equivalents, the importance of correct formal written English remains as strong as ever. Errors in formal correspondence, public presentations and promotional material can often lead to confusion and embarrassment. If you want to do justice to your professional image at work, it is important that you pay close attention to how you write in English.
In a famous email, which went viral on the internet, one unfortunate company employee replied to his CEO with: “Thank you for the mAssage!” Sometimes small typos can make a big difference.
Just checking! Always proofread your written communications 2-3 times to eliminate grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Use a program with a spellchecker to automatically highlight potential issues in the text and keep a good dictionary handy, or use a website like Grammarly.
Record your mistakes so you can learn from them Everyone makes mistakes when using a foreign language. What distinguishes a fluent business English speaker from the crowd is a willingness to learn and move on from these mistakes. Keep an ongoing written record of your common errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. Note which mistakes you repeat on a regular basis and then take action to rectify them using textbooks or Business English classes with a Business English classes with a native tutor.
Improve your professional emails Whenever you receive an email from a colleague in English, try noting down any new phrases that you might be able to use yourself next time. Keep a file on your computer for quick access to these set phrases. If you find it difficult to structure your correspondence, perhaps try an internet search for “business email templates” to see how natives pen their emails.
Join an English internet forum in your professional niche Many internet forums are still very much alive and kicking, despite the format being somewhat outdated these days. Try a Google search for “name of your profession + online forum” to find some suitable websites. Sign up as a free member and browser some of the discussion threads until you find something of interest. Help others by sharing your professional expertise, note down new expressions from other users and gain valuable English practice in the process.
Entries and comments on internet forums and social media reflect how the modern English language is used today. Keep your finger on the pulse by reading this type of content regularly!
WATCH – Using visual media to build your communication skills
In order to be a fluent English speaker, you need to develop advanced listening comprehension skills too. This is where video content has an important role to play because it exposes you to the spoken language with images that place it in a clear context. Audio alone offers less information. Learners often say that TV newsreaders speak too quickly to be fully understood all of the time, but that the images on the screen help them to contextualise and fill in the gaps themselves. Switch on and start watching by following these tips:
Watch TV series, documentaries and films related to your profession Even if you do not have English TV channels at home, you can still watch a wide variety of programmes free of charge via the internet. TV series, films and documentaries can give you access to real situational English as it is used today by native speakers at work. For example, if you are a legal professional, try watching series like Silk (UK), Suits (USA) or other “courtroom dramas” on this list. A quick Google search for “your profession + series” will help you to find relevant lists of programmes. For information on films and documentaries related to your business, try searching on IMDB.com and then look for items of interest on Youtube or via a Google search for “title + watch free online”. Where possible, you may wish to use English subtitles, but do not turn on subtitles in your native language. Watching TV regularly is one of the best ways to build your vocabulary and listening skills.
Switch on the news every morning! Why not start each day by catching up on the latest business and global news over breakfast? This could be done on your iPad, laptop or TV. Channels like BBC News 24, Sky News, CNN, and RT all have daily business reports that can be accessed online. If you do not have cable TV, try a Google search for “watch business news free online” and navigate to your channel of choice. Watching the news improves the speed at which you process information in English and helps you remain up to date on the latest events in the world.
Use Youtube to practise your business English online If you are short of time, watching shorter Youtube videos can be a great way of squeezing a little more English practice into your daily routine. Use the search box to find videos related to your professional niche or subscribe to channels that teach different aspects of English. You can start by watching some videos via Business English Pod and Engvid.com.
SPEAK – Finding opportunities to speak, gain fluency and build confidence
If you want to improve your communication skills for business, you must seek out and use all of your available opportunities to speak English at work. There is no substitute for regular interaction with native speakers in English so it is important to make this a priority when learning the language. If you live in a non-English speaking country, ensuring frequent conversation practice can be a challenge. Try some of the following tips to improve your English speaking:
Find a “study buddy” at work If you work for a large company, the chances are that you have colleagues who also want to speak English more fluently. Ask around and find a “study buddy” who is on your wavelength. Then make time each week to converse in English and share notes on what each of you has been learning since your last chat. This can help provide a social element to your self-study situation, especially if you do not have an English tutor.
Interact more with overseas colleagues Do you have any native or non-native colleagues from other countries? Do you use English when communicating with them? If the answer is “yes”, then perhaps you could interact with them more frequently in order to take full advantage of the English practice they provide. Whether this is via email, conference calls or face-to-face, it all means more English contact time for you and this leads to faster progress, especially with your speaking and listening skills. Building closer working relationships with colleagues is also good for business!
Use dialogues to practise formal exchanges Business English often follows a strict etiquette with formal patterns of usage. This makes learning it a little easier as certain work situations often use a limited set of words and constructions. Role-playing business English dialogues (like these) with a colleague or tutor will help you later when you face similar situations at work.
Join a public speaking club like Toastmasters If you lack confidence with your English speaking, why not overcome your fear by joining a club like Toastmasters? This organisation brings together business people interested in improving their public speaking and leadership skills in English. Members pay international fees of around $90/year with a one-off $20 registration charge when you join. Interested? You can search for your local Toastmasters club here.
Look for expats in your area Most big cities have an English speaking expat community. All you need to do is find a way in. Try searching via Facebook and Google for expat groups and websites in your country and then narrow down the results to your city. Expats tend to be a mixture of teachers and business people who frequently use English when socialising together. Find out where they meet up and how you can get involved in their little community. Some expats may be members of local business networking clubs so you may wish to include these in your search.
TRAIN – Getting your own personal business English trainer
Learning business English is like going to the gym. You start going on your own or with a friend, you make good progress to begin with, but then you start missing training sessions. Perhaps you have to stay behind late after work to complete a project or maybe your kids needs to be picked up from school early – your other commitments start to affect your training routine, you see slower progress and your motivation suffers as a result. Eventually, maybe you cancel your gym membership. Sound familiar? With the gym example, having a personal trainer often makes a big difference in terms of motivation and progress. This is also true when studying English.
Find a personal English trainer for 1-to-1 lessons Individual tutoring offers you the chance to focus on precisely the type of English you need to achieve your goals. You do not have to compromise or waste time listening to other students make mistakes, as you would in a traditional group class. One-to-one training provides a focal point for your studies as a whole and offers the opportunity to gain valuable feedback and error correction from a native English teacher. Training of this type can be gained via local language schools or in the form of Skype English lessons.
PROGRESS – A little each day goes a long way
As the saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. One of the most important factors when learning a foreign language is consistency. This means taking many small steps over a longer period of time in order to cover a big distance. For 99% of learners, gaining fluency in business English is a “long-ball game”. This means that it takes time. If you understand this and adopt the right approach to your studies, you will maintain your motivation longer and do what is necessary to achieve fluent English. This brings us to our final tip:
Approach your studies with a winning attitude Everyone is busy! Do not use this as an excuse to ignore your commitment to your English. Whatever time and effort you invest in your studies will be rewarded later with improved fluency and understanding. Successful people do not make excuses – they do what is necessary to achieve a result. Start improving your business English today by using the tips in this guide!
Alex Jude is the Founder & CEO of Online Teachers UK. He holds a BA hons degree in Linguistics from The University of Manchester and is a life-long English teacher. Following graduation, he spent 2002-2012 living and teaching in Russia, where he lectured in General Linguistics and Translation Studies. Alex is a fluent Russian speaker and worked with the BBC at the World Cup in 2018. In his spare time, he enjoys camping/bushcraft, playing guitar and watching rugby league.