How to Speak “Business English”

11th March 2020Business Coaching

Learning English for International Business

Business English is the international language of business, born in Britain, and yet:

When it comes to meetings conducted in English with different nationalities, it is the British themselves that others often find the most difficult to understand.


Because we don’t always say what we mean!

We sometimes speak in riddles – heavy on euphemisms, metaphors, irony and with a penchant for understatement.

Even our Americans cousins can find this difficult, so says a survey published by YouGov.

No wonder business partners with English as a second language sometimes struggle to understand British people – even when they have an excellent command of our language.

What is “Business English”?

Business English is fundamentally different from “British English” or “American English” , or indeed any other variant of English used on a day to day basis by the 380 million native English speakers around the globe.

It is a standardised set of words and phrases used in the international business arena by native and non-native English speakers alike.

Business English helps the around 2 billion non-native English speakers in the world to communicate with each other as well as with native English speakers- and of course, to do business without language barriers.

It really is a great tool – a true “lingua franca” that oils the wheels of global commerce.

However, native English speakers, particularly it seems British people, fail to recognize Business English as being different from their own natural way of speaking. This then causes problems for us and our non-British interlocuters.

Why do British people struggle to speak international business English?

In my role consulting with many different European nationalities, I frequently participate in video conferences and face to face meetings.

Often the meetings that include British participants go on for longest and lead to the greatest number of questions.

It seems we Brits really do have an innate ability to confuse and frustrate.

This is bad for understanding and it is bad for business.

If non-native speakers are able to conduct business amongst themselves in English with fewer misunderstandings, then it is clear that we Brits are the ones who need to change.

Having English as our native language is a blessing and a curse.

It gives us Brits the advantage of almost always being able to speak our language in the business environment.

And yet, because fewer and fewer British people speak other languages, we no longer appreciate how difficult it is to operate in a second language. We therefore make no modifications to the way we speak.

And because language is linked to culture, we lack the awareness to recognise that some aspects of language such as anecdotes, idioms and jokes are uniquely understood only by people who were born and bred in Britain or who now live permanently there.

How to speak Business English as a British person

If you conduct business internationally and really want to be understood, you need to learn how to speak “Business English”

In my experience, there are 3 Golden rules to learning Business English.

Firstly, put yourself in the shoes of a non-native speaker

They speak German or French or Hindi. They are fluent and use thousands of words in their native tongue in all sorts of contexts.

However, when they speak English, they have far fewer words at their disposal and fewer contexts in which they have practiced using them.

Moreover, they really have no need to learn the language of Shakespeare or the jokes of Billy Connelly or the many euphemisms that would mark them out as a native speaker.

So, you should mind your language and remember to KISS (“Keep it simple and standard”). Above all, save showing off your prowess with puns, plays on words and in-jokes for your friends and family.

Secondly, remember that this is about business

Your aim is to get your message across as succinctly as possible using words that any businessperson would understand. And of course, to conclude the deal.

That being the case, you will refrain from using phrases such as “back of a fag packet” and talk instead about your “initial estimate”. You will avoid meaningless acronyms such as “ASAP” and make sure any business jargon is clearly understood. Mostly it will be.

Finally, acknowledge that being a Brit does put you at an advantage in business discussions conducted in English

Recognise the years of study that your foreign counterpart has put into perfecting their business English and applaud the fact that they have spared you the hassle of having to find an interpreter or the pain of inflicting on them your pidgin French or your gesticulations!