Imagine speaking German in the business world.
Does that make you feel excited or petrified?
It’s one thing to master your Der, Die and Das in the classroom, but quite another to take them for a test drive in a real, live office environment—so it’s totally understandable if you’re nervous.
With the tips in this post, we’re going to replace those nerves with confidence (and competence), no matter your current situation.
Maybe you’ve been thrown into the deep end after landing a job at a German-speaking workplace—in which case, chances are you already have a fairly good handle on the language, or possess an exceptional skill (meaning you are eminently employable and everyone will put up with your woeful or non-existent German).
Or maybe you’re going through the process of job seeking in a German-speaking country, while still building on your basic communication skills. I can personally vouch for the trials and tribulations of this scenario!
Whatever your situation, business German presents a range of challenges that you may not find answers to inside your textbook. Writing a Bewerbung (application), preparing your Lebenslauf (resume) and learning business vocabulary are key among them.
But no matter how good you look on paper, at some point you’re going to have to open your mouth!
So I’d like to share with you here a few ways to train your spoken German, corresponding to common situations you will inevitably encounter in the business world, plus skills worth developing to handle them.
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4 Insider Tips to Speak Business German Like a Boss
1. Gain Confidence Speaking by Preparing and Accepting
Getting past the fear to speak is a familiar battle for every language learner. It might surprise you to know, however, that fluency is not actually a prerequisite for looking for a job—or landing one—at a German-speaking workplace.
Both situations are in fact classic examples of the advantages of the “immersion” approach to language learning, and with the right attitude, you can use them to your advantage.
In my experience, the key to gaining speaking with Selbstbewusstsein (confidence) in any situation is part strategy and part mindset, i.e. a combination of:
- Gute Vorbereitung (good preparation)
- Akzeptanz (acceptance) of your limitations
Let’s start with the first.
Preparing to speak
If you are knowingly going into a business situation where you will need to converse, such as a job interview or meeting, of course it makes sense to consider the subjects likely to be discussed, and prepare relevant vocabulary and phrases.
While what’s relevant is going to depend on your field, some general opening remarks and questions that you can use to greet Kollegen (colleagues) and Kunden (customers/clients) are always handy, such as:
- Wie geht’s Ihnen? (How are you?)
- Was haben Sie am Wochenende gemacht? (What did you do on the weekend?)
- Wie geht’s mit dem Projekt? (Tell me, how is the project going?)
- Möchten Sie einen Kaffee? (Would you like a cup of coffee?)
- Bitte nehmen Sie Platz. (Please, take a seat.)
Job seekers might like to consider this guide to interview preparation or, if you’re keen to dig deeper, try this list of key questions and answers. Practice your chosen phrases aloud—ideally with a fellow student or a native German—though the mirror will do if you’re short on time or company.
And if you’re worried memory will fail, write them down in a notebook or on flashcards and take them along with you for a last minute refresher.
No need to overdo it though! You are much more likely to speak naturally and confidently if you mostly stick with words that you’re comfortable with (your “active” vocabulary), rather than trying to cram in a bunch of new words the night before.
Of course, what you can’t necessarily prepare for are the spontaneous responses and questions from your colleagues. This is where a certain “Zen” mindset is needed to recognize your limitations, but not be paralyzed by them.
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Accepting your limitations
It’s important to remember that many German speakers similarly lack confidence in their English skills, and will be forgiving of your mistakes. Plenty more speak English badly, but with loads of confidence!
I attended a presentation recently where a German company director repeatedly used the mistranslated word “chance” to describe a big “opportunity” for the city of Berlin’s public transport system (the German word Chance translates as both, hence the confusion). A subtle difference, that lent an odd angle to his presentation, but didn’t ultimately kill it—in large part because he spoke engagingly and with confidence.
If he had spoken nervously and stumbled over words, the audience would have been completely distracted from the content. Just like him, you will make mistakes, but if you can do so with a level of conviction in your words, you will be understood—and taken seriously—anyway.
2. Practice Your Phone Etiquette
I have long lived in dread of making phone calls in German. Unlike talking to someone face-to-face, there are no visual cues available to you on the phone, and plenty of room for misunderstanding. The fear of a baffled silence at the other end—or conversely my own ears freezing up in panic and twisting the words I hear into gibberish—is enough to make me break out in a cold sweat!
Working on your phone skills is essential if you want to master business German, whether it’s following up on a job application or speaking to clients. For me this realization came not long after perfecting and firing off a few written job applications in German—with a little help from some native speaking friends, natürlich (obviously)!
It was only then that I realized I didn’t know how to field reply phone calls. (For the record, a simple “Hallo, hier ist Eleanor Chapman” is a reasonable start!)
It was clear I needed a strategy for taking and making phone calls. Here’s what works for me:
Learn some general opening phrases
If you’re the one dialing, you’ll want to learn some opening phrases you can use when the other person answers, such as:
- Hier ist Eleanor Chapman. Mit wem spreche ich? (It’s Eleanor Chapman here. Who am I speaking to?)
- Darf ich mit Herrn Schmidt sprechen? (Can I speak to Mr. Schmidt?)
- Ich rufe wegen einer Initiativbewerbung an, die ich [Ihnen] vor zwei Wochen geschickt habe. (I’m calling about an unsolicited application that I sent [to you] two weeks ago.)
- Ich rufe an, um ein Treffen zu vereinbaren. (I’m calling to arrange a meeting.)
Write down the basics of what you plan to say
Before you even pick up the phone to dial, write down the basics of what you want to say. This includes your own phone number (yes really, if you need to leave a message, having the numbers in front of you will save any awkward mental blocks), names of people you wish to speak to, and a few key phrases.
The big advantage of the phone is that no one knows you’re reading, so you can use all of the support you want!
While you’re listening, write things down, particularly words you don’t recognize—provided you understand the general context. Otherwise it’s better to fess up with an honest “Können Sie das bitte wiederholen?” (Can you repeat that please?) or “Wie bitte? Ich habe nicht verstanden” (What was that? I didn’t understand).
Be sure these notes include any times and dates relating to any arrangements that are mentioned during the call. It’s amazing how quickly this information vanishes if you don’t write it down!
Ask for names or email addresses to be spelled out
Use this essential question to make sure you’re spelling names, street names and email addresses correctly:
Könnten Sie das bitte buchstabieren? (Could you spell it please?)
Don’t assume you’ve heard correctly, only to misspell the director’s name, or have your carefully crafted email bounce back! Here are some of the German words used for common email symbols:
- ( _ ) Unterstrich (underscore)
- ( – ) Minus or Hyphen (hypen) – pronounced Hoo-fen
- ( . ) Punkt (dot)
- ( @ ) is technically At-Zeichen (at sign) but will almost always be referred to simply as “at.”
So email@example.com would sound something like:
If appropriate, follow up phone calls with an email confirming what has been discussed and arranged, to avoid any problems arising later due to misunderstandings.
3. Network: Make the Most of “Vitamin B”
Germans call it Vitamin B for Beziehungen (relationships), and it’s the key to getting ahead professionally in German, just like anywhere else in the world. If you’re living in, working and/or planning to work in a German-speaking country, it’s essential to get out and meet people—particularly at events likely to be attended by professionals from your field.
Practice small talk
A quick consultation with my German textbook yields a total of three possible topics on this theme: das Wetter (the weather), Krankheiten (illnesses) and Sternzeichen (star signs), suggesting it might be necessary to look a bit further afield.
Small talk doesn’t have to be painful and forced. The key to positive encounters with strangers is finding a patch of common ground, however small. If you attend events where the subject matter interests you, and make the effort to familiarize yourself with relevant vocabulary in advance, you’ll find it easier to engage in conversation on the theme at hand.
Your immediate (shared) context is also an obvious source of material for striking up a conversation—like asking for an opinion on the presentation you’ve both just attended.
And what’s the best way to practice? No two ways about it, you’ve got to get out and about! Websites like Meetup are a great place to start. Look for one that offers language exchange events in your city. It’s common for a mix of different people to turn up every time at these, making them not always great for deep and meaningful discussions, but perfect for practicing your conversation ice-breakers and learning new ones!
Be a good listener
By cultivating your listening skills, you’ll not only be taking the pressure off yourself, but at the same time making an excellent impression on the person with whom you’re speaking. The following strategies can help you to engage more positively and effectively with a conversation partner:
- Focus and be present. Make an effort to really be present in the conversation, by focusing closely on the person you’re speaking to and ignoring other activity in the room.
- Notice how you nod. Small and drawn-out nods indicate that you are listening, agreeing or encouraging your conversation partner. Rapid nodding on the other hand signals just the opposite—you’re distracted, only nodding for show and can’t wait for them to hurry up and finish!
- Wait to reply. Pause for a couple of seconds before you reply. This makes a positive impression, indicating that you’re taking the time to absorb what has been said before you reply (even if it really means you’re frantically searching the corners of your brain for the right vocabulary!)
- Ask questions. It’s possible to keep up your end of the conversation without understanding everything you hear. Focus on what you have understood and fire back a relevant question. This shouldn’t be a ja/nein (yes/no) question, but open-ended enough to maintain the focus on the other person, such as:
Also arbeiten Sie in der Turismusbranche. Wie ist es momentan in diesem Bereich?
(So you work in the tourism business. What’s it like in this field at the moment?)
The ability to listen intently, as if the person you’re speaking with is the only one in the room, tends to be a characteristic of truly charismatic people—who, by the way, are not necessarily born that way. You can find more tips on developing a charismatisch approach here.
Look for organized group situations where German is spoken
You can find language-focused meet-ups that offer informal discussion opportunities, or a tandem partner for one-on-one practice, but the advantages of putting yourself in a more structured group situation with native speakers are significant. Seeking out groups related to personal or professional interests has been an essential addition to my learning program.
Admittedly such groups are much easier to come by if you’re actually living in a German-speaking country—a situation which is also very much to your advantage if you’re looking for a German-speaking job! Local interest groups or other not-for-profit organizations might be a good place to start, and are often found through your local community center or library.
If you practice a particular profession (such as architecture or journalism) it’s also worth looking up their industry groups online. Many have working groups that meet on a monthly or bi-monthly basis to coordinate events and projects. Importantly, if German is the common language for the majority, there will be little chance of defaulting to English!
In these slightly less business-like environments, you might find that participants tend to address each other with the informal du and euch (you and you-plural). However, meetings are likely to still follow a relatively formal structure, giving you exposure to typical protocol and behavior, though in a friendlier environment than a strictly business context.
Shaking hands is a typical way to greet one another. Don’t be surprised, though, if you have to make the first move when it comes to introductions. This initial reservation towards strangers is usually quickly overcome by a friendly smile and greeting on your part.
4. Prepare for Business Meetings and Interviews in German
The following tips will get you prepared for meetings and interviews in German.
Use the formal address
Always use Sie instead of du with strangers in a business context—usually with employers and often with colleagues too—just take your cue from the way you are addressed. And remember that people will often introduce themselves by their last name only, like “Ich bin Müller,” or just Müller, which is best not responded to with a “Hi, Müller!” It would be appropriate, however to say “Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen” (It’s a pleasure to meet you).
Prepare and practice a Selbstdarstellung (personal introduction)
This is essential for a Vorstellungsgespräch (job interview), but also a worthwhile exercise ahead of business encounters with new colleagues and clients generally. How much you say and how you say it will vary, depending on whether you’re really “selling” yourself or just meeting someone new. For a job interview, you would cover who you are, what skills you have and what your goals are. A clear suggested outline and example is provided here.
Prepare an agenda in German
A good starting point for tackling a meeting is to take responsibility for preparing the Agenda in advance. Use an example for reference, whether from your office, or online. In this way, you’ll arrive much better prepared to follow the meeting. Here’s some useful Agenda vocabulary:
- Datum/Zeit/Ort (Date/time/place)
- Teilnehmer (Attendees)
- Gegenstand (Purpose)
- Begrüßung (Welcome)
- Thema (Theme/subject)
- Aktion (Action)
If you want to kick things up to the next challenge level, try writing the Protokoll (meeting minutes)!
Ultimately, speaking business German is not just a matter of learning vocabulary, but also the nuances of German cultural norms and interactions in the workplace—an understanding which will come with time and experience.
Use the approaches described here to practice effectively and speed up your progress. You’ll be making strides in the world of business German before you know it!