You’re sitting in the conference room with your coworkers, waiting for a meeting to start.
As some coworkers pour themselves cups of coffee, others are chatting among themselves.
Someone is saying she has to cut corners to finish her report on time.
Someone else is talking about how a difficult customer has kept him running round in circles.
In workplace conversations, you’ll notice that business idioms and phrases like the above are being used all the time. To be able to participate actively in these conversations, you need to master the idioms and phrases commonly used in business.
That’s exactly what we’re going to do here today.
4 Top Tips for Mastering Business English Idioms and Phrases
Listen and take note of business phrases
Do you remember how you learned your native language when you were a child? You learned new words by listening to your parents and then repeating what they said. This applies to learning new business vocabulary as well. The tip is to listen out for new business phrases and idioms and take note of how they’re used.
You should also note that the same word or phrase may have meanings specific to a particular industry. For instance, the field of finance has its own specific vocabulary that’s different from sales.
Set yourself a target
Mastering new business phrases and idioms becomes much more effective if you set yourself a target to practice what you’ve learned. Set yourself a target to use at least five new phrases each week in as many business situations as you can.
Participate in workplace conversations
Participating in any kind of workplace conversation, discussion or small talk has two benefits. Firstly, you’ll have the opportunity to listen and learn new phrases, and secondly, you’ll have a chance to practice what you’ve learned.
Use FluentU to see phrases used in real situations
In this post, we share 25 business-related idioms and phrases in English. You can find more and even hear them in use on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Unlike traditional language learning sites, FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the English language and culture over time. You’ll learn English as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a variety of engaging content from popular talk shows, nature documentaries and funny commercials, as you can see here:
FluentU makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you'll see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning and recommends examples and videos to you based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video.
You can start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, by downloading the app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
Get Down to Business with 25 Cool English Idioms and Phrases
1. Get down to business
Business meetings usually begin with some small talk while waiting for everyone to arrive. When it’s time to start seriously focusing on the actual work, it’s time to get down to business.
Sample sentence: We’ve got 25 business idioms and phrases to cover today so let’s get down to business.
2. From day one
This means “since the beginning.” You often hear the phrase from day one used in the workplace to talk about something that has been true since the very first day a project or business began.
Sample sentence: I hope management realizes that our deadlines are very tight. We need to hire more people immediately. We’ve been short-handed from day one.
3. Learn the ropes
Learn the ropes is used in situations where someone, usually a new coworker, needs to learn the basics of how something is done.
Sample sentence: The three new members of our project team will need to learn the ropes ASAP.
4. Bring to the table
To bring [something] to the table means to bring something of use or benefit (skills, experience, etc.) to a job or business activity (project, meeting, etc.).
Sample sentence: We need someone on the team who can bring project management experience to the table.
5. Learning curve
A learning curve is used to describe the progress someone has to make to gain experience or learn a new skill set. A steep learning curve indicates the task may be difficult and therefore take more effort.
Sample sentence: She is welcome to join our team, but there will be a steep learning curve.
6. Get off the ground
To get [something] off the ground means to start doing a job or project, usually after much discussion or planning.
Sample sentence: Months after looking into how to boost declining sales, we were finally able to get our aggressive sales campaign off the ground.
7. On a shoestring
When you do something on a shoestring, you’re working on a tight budget or with very little money.
Sample sentence: It’s going to be a challenge doing such a big project on a shoestring but we’ll try our best.
8. From the ground up
If you build a business or project from zero or from the bottom, you’re starting from the ground up.
Sample sentence: Have you read the news about the enterprising 12-year-old who’s building her business from the ground up?
9. Behind the scenes
This phrase is used to describe something, usually work, that’s done or that happens away from public view.
Sample sentence: Organizing a roadshow may look easy, but do you have any idea how much hard work we’ve put in behind the scenes?
10. Touch base
To touch base with someone simply means to contact someone.
Sample sentence: I have a meeting right now but I’ll touch base with you later.
11. The eleventh hour
The eleventh hour is used to describe something that’s done or happens at the last minute.
Sample sentence: The project manager won’t be pleased about them changing the design at the eleventh hour.
12. By the book
Doing something by the book means doing it strictly according to the rules, policies or the law.
Sample sentence: I don’t think John will listen to your suggestion. He insists on doing everything by the book.
13. Run around in circles
To run around in circles means to keep doing something without achieving any real results. In other words, you’re doing a lot of unnecessary work but not getting anywhere.
Sample sentence: The deadline is coming up, but we’ve been running around in circles because the client keeps changing their mind about the design.
14. Cut corners
If you cut corners, you’re taking shortcuts and using the easiest, quickest and cheapest way to do something.
Sample sentence: If we cut corners, we can probably meet our sales target for the last quarter.
15. The bottom line
You may know that the last or bottom line on a financial statement is the most important. The bottom line is what shows the total profit or loss. So then, the phrase the bottom line is used in general to refer to the final outcome, or the most important point to consider.
Sample sentence: It’s true that we’re very short-handed, but the bottom line is we must still deliver the project on time.
16. In a nutshell
Have you seen a nutshell? Think of how small it is and how little it can hold. So, in a nutshell means in summary, or in as few words as possible.
Sample sentence: This book is about successful businesspeople and how they reached the top. In a nutshell, it’s about how to grow a successful business.
Fifty-fifty simply means dividing something into equal parts so that both parties get 50%.
Sample sentence: Since I’m as busy as you are, let’s split the work for this project fifty-fifty.
18. The big picture
The big picture means to look at the overall view of something, or the situation as a whole and not at the details.
Sample sentence: I think his presentation was too long and detailed. He should’ve just given us the big picture.
19. Long shot
Imagine you’re throwing a dart from a long distance. What are the chances of it hitting the bullseye (the exact center of the target)?
Well, a long shot is an idiom that’s usually used to describe something that has a very small chance of happening or succeeding.
Sample sentence: Landing such a high-paying job is a long shot but I’m still going to give it a try.
20. Back to square one
Back to square one simply means to start over, or to go back to the beginning.
Sample sentence: I wish I’d saved my spreadsheet before the server crashed. Now I have to go back to square one.
21. Back to the drawing board
Back to the drawing board also means to start over, but it’s used more often to describe going back to the first stage of a project or process.
Sample sentence: Our design for small family homes wasn’t approved so we have to go back to the drawing board.
22. Go down the drain
A drain is a hole where liquids and waste are sent away. For example, there’s a drain in your sink, shower and toilet.
To go down the drain means that your effort, work or money is wasted or lost.
Sample sentence: If this sales campaign doesn’t succeed, all our hard work will go down the drain.
23. Gray area
The color gray is between black and white. When something is in a gray area, it means the situation isn’t certain. In a gray area there are no clear rules and it’s difficult to say if it’s right or wrong.
Sample sentence: You have many good points in your proposal but there’s one gray area we need to discuss.
24. Go the extra mile
To go the extra mile means to give more effort or do more than what’s expected of you.
Sample sentence: Anyone would be glad to have Pam on their team. She’s a great team player and is always willing to go the extra mile.
25. Call it a day
I saved the easiest one for last. When your work has been completed for the day, or when you decide to stop working on an activity, you call it a day.
Sample sentence: Now that we’ve learned 25 new business idioms and phrases that you can start using immediately, let’s call it a day.
Oh wait, before we call it a day, be sure to select a handful of these business idioms and phrases to put on your target practice list this week.
Of course, there’ll be a learning curve and you’ll have to work hard behind the scenes. But if you’re willing to go the extra mile, you’ll improve very quickly.
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