35 Terms to Enhance Your Business English Vocabulary
If you’re learning English in order to better your job prospects, the chances are that at some point you’re going to need to understand and employ a more specialised vocabulary.
Working in a business environment will expose you to a raft of new words that don’t tend to be covered by standard English as a Foreign Language courses. In this introductory guide, we explain some of the words and phrases you can expect to hear in an office, including both official terms and the so-called “office jargon” that has crept into use in the 21st century workplace.
Basic business terms
Let’s start by looking at a few very basic business terms that you might hear or need to use when you gain full-time employment (or even set up a business of your own).
1. Business plan
A business plan is, as the name suggests, a document used to outline plans for a business, setting out growth goals for the next three to five years, and identifying information needed to achieve those goals, such as target market, unique selling points, marketing goals, and so on. It might also outline strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (also known by the abbreviation “SWOT”). Business plans are essential for those setting up or developing a business, and will be needed in order to secure funding from banks, the Government or investors.
2. Balance sheet
A balance sheet details the company accounts at a certain point in time (often the end of the financial year). It lists the values of the company’s assets (things belonging to it), liabilities (what it owes) and ownership equity (what’s left after liabilities). It’s intended to provide a snapshot of how the company is doing financially, which can then be compared with goals outlined in the business plan.
The term “start-up” is used to describe a brand new business, typically in its first few months or years of trading. The term has connotations of entrepreneurship, and the implication is often that the company will grow significantly in size. It’s often associated with the tech industry, because the term was used extensively during the dot com boom, but it can apply to any new business. Start-ups are typically thought of as forward-thinking, often with a relaxed atmosphere in unconventional offices. Because start-ups are in their infancy, they have a small number of employees and often no strict hierarchy, making them attractive places to work.
Just as a weather forecast predicts what the weather’s going to be doing, so a business forecast predicts various aspects of a business’s future movement based on its current situation, external factors, new products, plans for marketing and such like. The timeframes are usually somewhat longer than those involved in a weather forecast – three to five year forecasts are common. Types of business forecast include sales, profit and loss, and cashflow; the latter helps business owners predict whether they’re likely to run out of money.
Marketing refers to the promotion of a product or service. It can take numerous forms, including advertising, emailing customers, sending out leaflets or brochures, engaging with potential customers via social media, and so on.
A “USP” is the “Unique Selling Proposition” of a company, product or service – in other words, what makes it different from similar offerings. USPs are considered when a company is set up or a new product or service is launched, and they’re also at the forefront of marketers’ minds, because it’s the unique aspects that enable those charged with marketing to succeed, by highlighting reasons why customers should choose them rather than another company.
The abbreviation “HR” stands for “Human Resources”, and it’s the part of a company that deals with matters relating to its employees. The goal of someone who specialises in HR is to ensure that employees are happy and productive, reducing turnover of employees (that is, reducing the frequency with which employees leave and new ones are hired) and maximising the cost-effectiveness of the company’s investment in its workforce. HR oversees employee training and development, enforces company regulations and deals with payroll (everything to do with the payment of employees). HR is also there to handle disciplinary matters, and to deal impartially with problems arising between employees, and between employees and their managers.
Recruitment is the process of hiring new employees. Companies exist whose sole purpose is to match employers with potential employees; these are known as recruitment agencies.
“Brand” is the term given to a company’s name and the recognisable attributes that go with that company, which define its unique identity. The company’s tone of voice and design of official communications are part of what gives it this “brand identity”.
10. Public Relations
Public Relations, or PR, is the role within a business devoted to communicating with the press, and ensuring favourable media coverage of a company, product or service.
The “minutes” of a meeting are notes taken during the meeting to record what was said, what was agreed, and to assign actions to individuals whose responsibility it will be to complete them.
12. Cold call
This is a phone call, usually from a sales representative of a company, to a potential customer or client who is not expecting the call and with whom there has been no previous contact, with the aim of trying to sell them something. Cold calls have a bad reputation, and are often referred to by customers as “nuisance” calls.
A particular category of business-related vocabulary is known in English as “office jargon”, and it’s a widely derided language all of its own. Also known as “management speak”, these are the self-aggrandising terms that many people in business use in order to make themselves sound clever and important; at least, that’s what they think. In reality, most people loathe office jargon, and those who use it lose the respect of those around them. We introduce you to a few such terms here, so that you know what they mean if you hear them yourself (and so that you know what to avoid saying in a business environment!).
13. Going forward
This is usually used to mean “from now on”. Some may consider it to have connotations of moving on positively from something negative that may have occurred: “we’ll adopt a different approach going forward”.
14. Thinking outside the box
A favourite of ‘quirky’ creative agencies, the phrase “thinking outside the box” means to think creatively, abandoning all preconceptions.
15. Blue sky thinking
The archetypal piece of office jargon, the term “blue sky thinking” is another way of expressing the idea of “thinking outside the box”.
You’ll know the word “action” from its normal contexts, such as action movies, or simply describing something being done (“taking action”). However, in the business environment this one of many examples of a noun being turned into a verb. “Can you action that?” might be a request you’d hear in an office, meaning simply “Can you do that?”
This word is used to refer to anyone who’s involved in a particular project. If someone has a say in the outcome of a piece of work, they are a “stakeholder”.
This term refers to the idea of gaining acceptance for something. If someone agrees to subscribe to a particular way of doing things, for example, they are “buying in” to the idea. You might see a phrase like “seek buy-in from employees” in an HR document discussing the implementation of a new set of rules, for example.
Though “leverage” is another word that’s meant to be a noun – meaning the use of a lever to apply force – it’s often heard in a business context being used as a verb, meaning to utilise something to the business’s advantage – “leverage our contacts to spread the word”, for example.
20. Touch base
This is surely one of the most cringe-worthy pieces of office jargon, and it’s filtered its way through from the pitches of American baseball into the offices of the UK. All it means in the office environment is “to make contact”. You might hear “let’s touch base”, meaning “let’s talk”.
21. On the same page
In the world of office jargon, it’s apparently acceptable to take a well-known idiom – in this case “singing from the same hymn sheet” – and dumb it down for use in the boardroom. If you’re “on the same page” as someone, you’re approaching something from the same point of view as them, with the same agreed assumptions in mind.
Yet another example of a noun becoming a verb for the purposes of awful office jargon is the word “feedback”, which should be used as a noun to describe constructive comments on something (as in essay feedback). However, in an office environment it’s not unusual to hear it used as a verb – “We’re waiting for him to feed back on the ideas” – or even, horrifically, in the past tense: “He’s fed back to us that he doesn’t like it”.
23. Price point
For some reason, some business types like to talk about “price points” instead of just “prices”. This is one of many examples of using more complicated language in lieu of a simpler word or phrase.
24. End of play
This irritating term refers to the end of the working day. “Close of play” is a variant, as in “Can you get this over to me by close of play today?”
25. Drill down
You might hear this term used to describe something that deserves closer inspection: “we need to drill down to the finer details”.
26. Best practice
You might hear colleagues referring to industry “best practice”, which describes a generally acknowledged ‘best way of doing things’ in order to achieve optimum results.
27. Core competency
This bewildering phrase refers to the strengths of a person or company. The word “competent” doesn’t even refer to strength – it means the ability to do something to a satisfactory standard.
If something is “scalable”, this means that it’s an idea that will work easily on a larger scale to the one it currently works on. For example, a “scalable” business model is one that’s easy to replicate in order to expand the business.
29. Skill set
This refers to someone’s range of skills. It’s jargon because it’s an unnecessary way of describing what could easily be referred to simply as “skills”.
You’d have thought that the word “vertical” is simply the opposite to “horizontal”, but not in a business context. In the world of business jargon, it refers to an area of expertise. Rather than saying “we cater for the logistics industry”, some business types might say “we cater for the logistics vertical”.
31. Get the ball rolling
This is simply a way of saying “start”. You might hear it at the beginning of a meeting, when the person organising the meeting might say “let’s get the ball rolling” to mean “let’s begin the meeting”.
32. Annual leave
Many business people now write in their out-of-office emails that they’re on “annual leave”. This simply means that they are on holiday. “Annual leave” is really a term used by the military, and it’s unclear how it became adopted into the world of civilian business.
33. Low-hanging fruit
Imagine picking fruit from a tree: you’d go for the ones hanging low first, as they’re easiest to get. In business, the phrase “low-hanging fruit” is used to describe the tasks or opportunities that are easiest to tackle.
34. Quick wins
This horrible phrase refers to the same sort of thing as “low-hanging fruit” – the things that are easiest to achieve.
35. Helicopter view
Believe it or not, this means “a quick overview”. Why anybody felt that describing it in this way was necessary is anybody’s guess; but the same could be said of any of the examples on this list of office jargon, so you’re best off avoiding these terms if you want to be taken seriously in an office environment.
To put your newfound vocabulary into practice, why not join us on one of our Business Summer Schools?
Image credits: business plan