26 Business Metaphors in English To Get You “Up to Speed”

So, imagine you’re in a typical business meeting.

The presenter has a PowerPoint presentation that’s full of graphics. There are only a few words on the screen, so you’ll need to pay attention to what he’s saying in order to get the information.

You expect to hear information about sales, profit and more business terms. But instead, the presenter talks about “planting seeds.”

Someone asks a question about “planning a route.”

And then someone else starts talking about “getting up to speed.”

What’s going on?

You’re there for a presentation about last quarter’s sales and instead everyone is talking about gardening, traveling and journeys. At least, that’s what you’ve figured out from your translation. Have your English lessons proved to be useless?

No, not at all. You’re simply getting a new lesson called “The Use of English Metaphors in Business Conversations.”


What Are Metaphors?

Macmillan English Dictionary 2nd Wth CD

According the “MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners,” a metaphor is “a word or phrase that means one thing and is used to describe something else to emphasize their similar qualities.”

People use metaphors in the business world on a daily basis. They use some so often, in fact, that these more common metaphors have become part of the everyday language and often serve as the basis of idioms.

If you don’t know the connection between metaphors and their actual meanings, however, you may have a hard time understanding what people are saying. Translation simply doesn’t work. Don’t worry though. That’s what I’m here to help you with.

Why Use Metaphors in Business English?

What does the word “speed” make you think of? A certain car brand, a race track, a plane, a runner?

Words are powerful, and businesspeople harness this power when they use metaphors. The use of metaphors does three things.

1. Metaphors help capture attention.

2. Metaphors create connections with other people.

3. Metaphors simplify complex ideas.

Using metaphors in business presentations, meetings, documents and other forms of communication creates images that people pay attention to while, at the same time, effectively relaying a message that others understand.

Why is this true?

Well, metaphors come from and are received by the right side of the brain. That’s the side of the brain that deals with emotion and imagination.

When you’re trying to explain something logically (to the left side of the brain) and people don’t seem to be understanding what you’re saying, you can turn the situation around by using a metaphor to create a common image and understanding.

26 Business English Metaphors to Add Color to Your Sentences

1. Time is money

This means that time is valuable, so don’t waste it.

“Sorry Mom, I have to get back to work now. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, time is money. Call me when you get home.”

2. To buy some time

This literally means that you pay for time. When you hear someone say that they have to buy some time, however, you don’t have to pull your wallet out to help them. The term means that someone wants to increase the amount of time they have to achieve a specific goal or complete a task.

“They originally wanted an answer by tomorrow, but this latest development has bought us some time. We’ll probably have at least another six months before they’ll want an answer. During that time, we can try to find another solution.”

3. To spend time

When you think of time as a resource like money, then when you use time, you spend it—just like you spend money.

“We really can’t afford to spend time trying to develop this on our own. It would be better for us to buy the technology.”

4. To be worth waiting for

Like money, time has value. So, if something is worth waiting for, then it’s worth one’s time and trouble.

“John just called. He’s stuck in traffic, but please don’t make a decision until you see his design. I promise you, it’s worth waiting for.”

5. To waste time

One can spend money and not get anything of value for it. English speakers talk about time in the same way. If you spend your time on something and don’t get anything of value in return, then you have wasted your time.

“John just called. He’s stuck in traffic, but please don’t make a decision until you see his design. I promise you, it’s worth waiting for.”

“I hope so. I don’t appreciate people wasting my time.

6. All dried up

This literally implies that your dollar bills were wet, but now they’re dry and shriveled up into small, wrinkled paper.

When you hear someone say this metaphorically, however, they’re saying that they don’t have any money or, at least, the money in the currency you’re talking about. You might hear people talk about dollars being dried up, or perhaps more generally about budgets or funds being dried up.

“I agree that it would be a great takeover option, but we aren’t in the position to buy the company now. Our dollars are all dried up.”

7. To float a loan

What stronger image of water is there than something floating on top?

Floating a loan doesn’t literally mean getting a loan from a bank or a person and then putting it in the water and letting it float. How would you do that anyway? Floating a loan simply means to get a loan of money.

“I agree that it would be a great takeover option, but we aren’t in the position to buy the company now. Our dollars are all dried up.”

“We could try floating a loan.”

8. Liquidity of assets

Okay. We all know that assets aren’t physically liquid like water, but businesspeople talk about the liquidity of assets anyway. What’s up with that? Well, when you hear that term, someone is really talking about how easy it is to convert assets to cash.

Perhaps it’s because the assets flow like water.

“Or we could look at the liquidity of our assets. If we sold some we could come up with the funds we need to acquire the company.”

9. To keep one’s head above water

Humans can only be underwater for so long before they drown. Survival in the water involves keeping your head above water. In business, it’s the same.

“Look, we’re barely keeping out heads above water now. Why risk getting into more debt by buying a company that may, or may not, improve our position in the market?

10. To go under

If you’re under the water for too long, you drown. Businesses can’t literally drown, but they can close for various economic reasons. When they do, people say that they have gone under.

“I have to agree with you. A lot of businesses have gone under by overextending themselves.”

11. Wage freeze

Water freezes and when it does, it doesn’t move at all. Nothing moves, not even the tiny individual particles. But don’t worry. A wage freeze doesn’t mean that you can’t move your money. It simply means that a company has decided not to increase wages for a certain period of time.

“I’m sure you have heard by now that we’ve decided to implement a wage freeze. I’ve called this meeting to explain the economic conditions that have made this move necessary.”

12. To be solvent

Solvency is a concept normally connected to chemistry. In chemistry, a solvent is a substance that can dissolve other substances, breaking them down into tiny particles.

Businesses can be solvent as well, and this means that they’re able to pay their financial obligations and still have money left over to operate.

“Have you heard? Liz Waltman is retiring.”

“The company will really miss her. She took it from bankruptcy to solvency in a record amount of time.”

13. Cash flow

Water flows and, in business, when one talks about the movement of cash in (revenues) and out of (expenses) a company, one talks about cash flow.

“The meeting starts in an hour. Do you have those cash flow projections for next quarter yet?”

14. Corporate culture

Literally this means the shared beliefs, ways of thinking and ways of behaving one finds in a corporation. Businesses can’t think or behave in a certain way, however, because businesses aren’t people.

This metaphor emphasizes the similar qualities between members of societies that do have distinct cultures and how individual organizations tend to “behave” in general. To get a clearer picture, think of the difference between Apple and Microsoft.

“Everyone really thought that the merger was going to be a success. “

“In terms of the products, it should have been. Huge differences in corporate culture caused a big problem though.”

“Yes, I heard that the employees in one company were very dynamic and used to making changes quickly, while the other had to have formal meetings before anything was ever decided.”

15. Off the shelf & 16. Tailor-made

People sometimes talk about a product being “off the shelf” or “tailor-made.” These two terms come from the way we talk about clothing. You can literally take a sweater off of the shelf that it’s on and buy it as it is. You can also, however, have clothes made exactly to your specifications.

Tailor-made clothing are literally made by a tailor. Tailor-made clothing will fit you perfectly and will be the exact color and material that you want. These articles of clothing tend to be more expensive than those bought off the self.

Any product can be talked about with these metaphors.

“Have you seen Dave’s new Ferrari? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“And you never will. He had it tailor-made.”

“Lucky guy. I’ll be happy just to be able to afford one that’s off the shelf.”

17. Product architecture

Merriam-Webster defines architecture as “the art or science of designing and creating buildings.” When we talk about how a building looks, or its design, we use the word “architecture.” Businesspeople now use this term to describe all the different components of a product or business organization, as well as how they all interact.

“When do you usually determine product architecture?”

“Well, that usually takes place early in the development process.”

18. Software platform

In building terms, a platform is a raised, level surface. The IT world has borrowed this term to describe operating systems, databases and programs for computers.

“It can be challenging to build a software platform in an agile environment.”

19. To plan a route

Just as your plan how you will get somewhere when you travel, businesspeople talk about planning the way in which they’re going to get something done.

“We need to plan the best route to produce quality products at a reasonable price.”

20.  New horizons

The horizon is something that you’ll often hear sailors or people traveling by sea talk about. It’s the long horizontal line where the earth or sea seems to meet the sky. In business terms, it’s something that one can possibly attain or reach.

“Recent technological breakthroughs have opened up new horizons in the car industry.”

21. To get up to speed

We talk about forms of transportation getting up to speed, or not. When a car or boat gets up to speed, it’s moving at the normal speed, or the speed that you desire. The term in Business English means having the amount of knowledge that’s expected for you to have about a topic.

“We’re having this meeting to get everyone up to speed on this matter before next week’s press conference.”

22. To sow the seeds

Farmers scatter seeds on the ground in order to grow some type of crop or plant. Businesspeople also sow seeds for the purpose of achieving a particular result, like growth, for example.

“Hiring the right talent sowed the seeds for the company’s tremendous success.”

23. Deadwood

Wood that’s dead on a tree prohibits its growth just as deadwood in a company prohibits the company’s growth. What’s deadwood in a company? It’s the term used for employees who don’t do their jobs properly and are thus useless to the organization.

“The new CEO vowed to get rid to the deadwood in the company.”

24. To bear fruit

When fruit grows on a tree, we say that the tree is bearing fruit. When a desired result occurs in the business world, we use the same term.

“The new product is already bearing fruit for the company.”

 25. Career ladder

When you climb the career ladder, you get a promotion that moves you to a higher level in the organization.

“Did you know that Tom started out in customer service?”

“Yes, I knew that. His success is amazing. Now he manages all of the European stores. He climbed up the career ladder quickly.”

26. Career path

In business, a career path is the way a person progresses in their job or a series of jobs.

“She followed an unusual career path. She started out in sales and now she is a copyright lawyer.”

Resources to Learn Business English Metaphors

Listen for the type of connections I’ve just told you about, and your understanding of the meaning of metaphors in Business English will grow. It never hurts, however, to continue to learn. These sources will help you along.

1. Newspapers and Magazines (The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist)

Reading is the best way to increase your vocabulary in general and it’s an excellent way to expose yourself to Business English metaphors on a daily basis.

These websites let you read a limited number of articles per month for free. However, because they’re such thorough and popular resourcse for business, you’ll probably find that having a subscription to one or all of them is completely worth it.

2. TV (CNN, BBC and other business news programs)

You’ll want to be able to understand the meaning of Business English metaphors when you hear them as well as see them. Sharpen your listening skills by listening to business news and programs that feature businesspeople.


So, what’s next for your career path?

With all these tools in hand, you’ll be using Business English metaphors yourself in no time.

Learn business metaphors like these, and there’s no telling how far up the ladder you’ll climb!

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