Doing business in English requires a special skill.
I’m not talking about participating in meetings.
I’m not talking about giving presentations.
I’m not even talking about negotiating in English.
Of course, you need to be able to do all of those, too!
But there’s another really important skill that’s easy to forget about: reading.
You have to read those English-language reports, emails and contracts sitting in your inbox.
You can’t ignore them.
What’s more, you need to be able to read business news written in English.
You won’t be able to do your job properly if you don’t.
Reading business material in English will help you:
- Learn what’s happening in English-speaking markets.
- Discover new ideas and motivation to go further in your career.
- Make informed decisions based on the information you read.
- Gain power by not relying on others to translate for you.
So, are you ready for all this and more?
Then read on.
In this post, I’ll teach you to read business English like a pro.
What Makes Business English Reading Material Different
Maybe you can already read a fiction novel, a menu or a train schedule with no problem.
So what’s different about reading a business contract, a report or the minutes of a meeting?
Maybe making your way through the words isn’t difficult.
But as you look at those words, do you really understand what you’re reading?
If you don’t, you’re not alone.
Understanding business English material is different from understanding other material in English.
Here are three of the most common reasons:
- Certain industries have a set of vocabulary words that only people who work in the industry understand. Think about the terms doctors, lawyers and information technology professionals use. Their spouses probably don’t even understand what they’re talking about sometimes! (Unless they work in the same industry, of course.)
- Reports, instructions, contracts, newspapers and magazines use sentence structures rarely seen in the latest bestselling novel. Writers of business material may use the passive voice and long, complicated sentences.
- The biggest difference between reading in general and reading business material is the outcome. You read fiction novels for pleasure. You may not understand everything you read, but that’s okay. On the contrary, you may need to take some type of action as a result of the reports and emails you read. People who don’t understand this kind of material may suffer serious consequences. Who wants to be one of those people? Definitely not you!
Who Are the Best Readers?
Here’s something that may surprise you.
Improving your business reading comprehension will probably mean learning how to read the right way.
You see, you may think you know how to read.
Most likely, though, you’re a passive reader.
You need to become an active reader.
But what does this mean?
In the article “Active Reading,” Brogan Sullivan states:
“Indeed, the difference between passive reading and active reading is like the difference between watching a nature documentary and hiking through the wilderness.”
In other words, active reading means getting involved.
Improving your business English reading starts with realizing that you have a job as a reader.
That job is to think as you read.
There’s no need to be nervous about going from being a passive reader to an active reader. It’s not that difficult if you know what to do.
The following tips will guide you to success.
How to Be an Active Reader
Good hikers take an active role in their hiking. This helps them to get home safely.
Before going out, they look at a map. Studying the map helps them know where they’re going.
During the hike, active hikers look at their surroundings. They look for signs that something might not be safe. They read signs along the trail. They make decisions based on the information they have.
After the hike, they review the experience to see what went well and not so well. They use this information to improve their next hiking experience.
An active hiker doesn’t rush into unknown territory.
In the same way, active readers don’t rush into a text. Instead, they prepare before they read. Then, they go through the text. Finally, they look at what they got from the reading experience.
Here’s what you’re going to do to read like an active reader.
Before You Read
You’re going to do several things before you even start reading the text.
We’ll use this blog post as an example.
That’s right, your work starts now.
Take a look at the text you’re reading.
What do you see?
“Lots of words,” is what the passive reader would say.
But as an active reader, you see a lot more.
You see a title, headings, a picture and highlighted words. Active readers notice these things before even starting. It helps them get an idea of what they are about to read.
But looking over the text is not the only thing active readers do before they start reading.
They also decide what their purpose for reading is.
Well, knowing your purpose before reading helps you focus on the text.
Focus is important because your brain has a lot to do as you read. It has to follow the content, figure out words and process all of this information at the same time.
Whew! All that effort would make many non-native English speakers not want to read business material in English at all.
You aren’t going to have that problem, though.
I’m going to show you some key strategies to simplify and focus your reading.
Let’s get started.
As You Read
That’s one of the strategies you’re going to use.
As you read, you’re going to stop at the end of each paragraph. Then you’re going to ask yourself, “Did I understand what I read?”
If the answer is yes, continue.
Otherwise, re-read the topic sentence. Topic sentences are in every paragraph, usually at the beginning. They state the main idea of the paragraph.
Once you understand the paragraph, ask yourself questions about it. Stopping to answer these questions keeps you thinking actively.
Also, take time to summarize the paragraph. The summary will help you remember what you read.
Now, some texts are more difficult to read than others. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. When you have to read one of the difficult ones, you may need strategies to help you understand vocabulary words.
Or do you?
When you see a word that you don’t understand, ask yourself one question:
“Do I need to understand this word to continue?”
You may often be surprised to realize that you can continue reading without it. But if you do need to know the meaning, use these tips to help you figure it out:
- Look for nearby words and phrases that give hints about what the word might mean.
- Try to guess the meaning. See if your guess makes sense in the sentence.
- Use knowledge you already have about history, sports or culture to guess the meaning of possible idioms. Idioms are phrases that have specific meanings within a culture. They may not be literal, or mean exactly what they appear to be saying.
- Identify similes (a comparison of two things that have something in common) by looking for the words “like” or “as.”
- Identify metaphors (a more direct comparison of two things) by looking for comparisons using the words “was,” “were,” “is” or “are.”
- Try to figure out the meaning of similes and metaphors by looking at the two things being compared. Think about how they are alike.
Maybe you’re still having problems following what you’re reading. If so, it’s a good idea to watch for transitional words and phrases.
Transitional words and phrases include:
- “on the other hand”
- “for example”
- “to conclude”
These provide clues that the author may:
- Add something.
- Compare something.
- Prove something.
- Show an exception.
- Repeat something.
- Emphasize something.
- Show sequence (order).
- Give an example.
Finally, use your own knowledge to help you understand what you’re reading. What connections to your own business experience can you make? What knowledge do you have to help you determine what the author means, even if it isn’t something they’re directly telling you?
But you’re not done yet. As you read, you also want to make the text your own.
How do you do that?
Here are a few easy ways:
- One way is to visualize what you’re reading. Picturing what’s happening or being described will help you follow the text.
- You can also pause and think about what ideas you’re going to take away from the text. Identify the ideas that will help you make decisions. Identify the knowledge you can apply to your work.
- The most powerful strategy you can use is to synthesize (put together) the information to come up with new ideas.
I’ve just given you a lot of strategies to increase your reading comprehension.
However, part of good reading is choosing which strategy to use.
You don’t need to use all of these strategies for every type of business English reading material.
You’ll need to choose one that works for you and what you’re reading.
After You Read
So now you’ve finished reading.
But you still have work to do.
Ask yourself if you feel like you’ve met your purpose for reading.
Go back and review what you’ve read.
Finally, think about what you’ve learned.
Business Reading Material to Consider
Now it’s time to put these strategies into practice. And the best way to do that is to read every day.
Don’t make excuses. You may not have English documents to read every day. But there’s plenty of business English material that you can read anytime.
Make it a habit to read:
- Business newspapers or business sections from well-known newspapers. For example: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Financial Times. It may be smart to consider a subscription to The New York Times, since otherwise you’ll only have access to a certain number of articles per month. It’s a valuable resource to read everyday online, as there are a variety of news articles on business topics.
- Annual reports. (Start with your own company’s reports. Then try those of your competitors.)
- Marketing material. (Ads, flyers and sales letters.)
Trust me, this material is not too difficult for you. All the magazines and newspapers will have articles that you can read.
Here’s proof: Take a look at how Google ranked the reading level of England’s national newspapers.
But each paper printed some articles in every category: basic, intermediate and advanced.
If you want more support in your reading, you can use FluentU’s program to read along with videos and interactive subtitles.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like business dialogues, inspiring speeches, news and more—and turns them into personalized English lessons.
FluentU has a huge collection of English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch.
More to the point, FluentU has an entire business category filled with authentic business-related videos covering six language levels.
To show the variety of videos even inside this single category, real-world business videos on FluentU include “Introducing Business Colleagues,” “Business Buzzwords,” “Control Your Inbox!” and “What Warren Buffet Thinks About Cash.”
An added bonus is that if you want to work on other topics later, simply use the same, familiar FluentU platform to learn with videos from other categories, such as “Science and Tech,” “Politics and Society” or mix it up with “Arts and Entertainment” or “Health and Lifestyle.”
Every spoken word is subtitled, complete with an in-context definition, image and multiple example sentences.
All you have to do is tap or click on one of the words in those subtitles to get more information. For example, if you tap on the word “brought,” you will see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
If you are interested in watching fun, relevant videos and practicing language actively in the process, be sure to create a FluentU account and try it out on your computer, iOS or Android device!
It takes time and effort to become an active reader in a foreign language.
But you’ve got to do it.
The results will transform your business life.
Tracy Bowens holds a TEFL Certificate and an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is currently a Visiting Professor at DeVry University and a freelance writer.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.