In this episode, I am going to introduce eight idioms that are commonly used in business situations. One of the major problems language learners face when working in a native English environment is recognising and comprehending idioms. Even if you are not interested in business, these idioms are used in many different situations and contexts! Whether you are studying, working, living, and or just enjoying English, these idioms will be perfect for you!

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Frequently (adv) – often 

The buses run less frequently on Sundays

To originate (v) – to come from a particular place, time, situation, etc

Although the game originated in the UK, it has become an international sport

Elaborate (adj) – containing a lot of careful detail or many detailed parts

They are making elaborate preparations for their wedding

Flaw (n) – a fault, mistake, or weakness, especially one that happens while something is being planned or made, or that causes something not to be perfect

This report is full of flaws

Dependent (adj) – needing the support of something or someone in order to continue existing or operating

It’s very easy to become dependent on sleeping pills

To concentrate (v) – to direct your attention or your efforts towards a particular activity, subject, or problem

Many wine producers have concentrated their efforts on producing higher quality wine 

Bureaucracy (n) – a system for controlling or managing a country, company, or organization, that is operated by a large number of officials employed to follow rules carefully

I had to deal with the university’s bureaucracy when I was applying for financial aid

Earlier today I had a conversation with an English language student who works for an international company. Although their English was excellent, they told me that working in an English language business environment can be frustrating. Native speaking colleagues will naturally and frequently use idioms, phrasal verbs, and expressions in their conversations, instructions, and other forms of speech! So, in today’s episode I’m planning on introducing eight commonly used and fascinating idioms that you might hear in business. I’ve actually already made two episodes on business idioms last year, which I’ll link to in the description! Idioms are especially difficult to understand for non-native speakers – they have meanings that are not related to words used in the idiom. For example, the idiom ‘big picture’ (which i looked at in a previous episode) has nothing to do with pictures!! Therefore, it is vital you learn and study them, so the next time you hear them you will have no problem understanding what is being said! Without further delay, let’s begin!

Game Plan 

We’ll begin with a particularly useful idiom – game plan. A game plan is a strategy or plan for achieving success. The idiom actually originates from sports games. In football, rugby, basketball, or any sport, teams use special tactics, strategies, and plans to try to win. This might include using players in certain positions, targeting an opponent’s weaknesses, or changing their approach to the game depending on time. American football teams are famous for having incredibly elaborate and detailed game plans, with teams employing staff specifically to make them! Game plans in business are similar! It is the strategy or plan to achieve your objectives. It is something that tells a leader or a professional the what, the how, the when and the why of achieving particular goals. Moreover, it is about making sure you are prepared for everything that could happen, and make sure outside factors cannot influence your plan! You could talk about a game plan for attracting new investment, a game plan for improving your sales record, or a game plan for delivering a new project!

Down the Drain

A drain is something used to remove water. We have them in our showers, bath tubs, sinks, and some roads even have drains in case it floods! As water rushes down the drain it disappears, it is lost and wasted, and you have nothing to show for what was there before. What if it wasn’t just water going down the drain? This idiom is used when we waste something! Just like water disappears down the drain and is carried off never to be seen again, so too can our money, time, and effort. If you travel to Las Vegas, and lose thousands of dollars at the casinos, all of your money has gone down the drain – you wasted a lot of money and have nothing to show for it. If you spend months preparing and planning for a new project, but at the last minute it was cancelled, all of your time and efforts went down the drain. 

In the Driver’s Seat

This next idiom is a little easier to understand. If you are in the driver’s seat, you are in charge or in control. In a car, there is one driver’s seat and the rest are passenger seats. Although passengers can have some influence in the direction, speed, and driving style of the car, the person in the driver’s seat is in control. The car does what they want it to do. So in a business situation, the person in the driving seat is the person in charge of a project! If you are in the driver’s seat of a company, you decide employees’ salaries, you make the overall game plans, and decide everyone’s roles. The person in the driver’s seat is the person in control. Have you ever been in the driver’s seat for a project?

Not Going to Fly

If something is not going to fly, it isn’t expected to work out or be successful. This idiom is often used to comment on a new idea – it means that idea has a problem or flaw which means it probably won’t work. It can also be used to deny a request, if you think that the request is not a good idea and should not proceed. Imagine your friend is enthusiastically showing you a new plane they designed. It looks great, but there is one major problem – your friend forgot to include an engine! That’s definitely not going to fly! It won’t work out. In business, some new products or projects are also not going to fly.

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

Have you heard this idiom before? It’s actually good advice! Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Imagine you collect some eggs from your chickens. They lay ten large eggs, with which you plan to make some delicious omelettes and cakes, so you put them all in your basket and walk back to your house. However, on the way back, you trip and drop your basket – smashing all of your eggs. Now you can’t cook anything. However, if you had put your eggs in more than one basket, maybe this would not have happened. If you had two baskets, even if you dropped one, you would still have five eggs! Don’t make everything dependent on one thing; don’t put all your resources into one thing; don’t depend for your success on a single plan; don’t concentrate all your efforts into one area. When looking for jobs, it would be better if you applied to several companies instead of just one; don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Similarly, it is wise to diversify your investments across different stocks, as you should not put all your eggs in one basket. 

Red Tape

Red tape is an idiom referring to official rules and processes that seem excessive and unnecessary. In the real world, if you see red tape in the street or in a building, it normally means no entry. You cannot access the area beyond the red tape. Often this is for good reasons. However, in business, red tape is normally considered a bad thing. It is associated with bureaucracy, paper work, and official procedures – things that take a long time and make it difficult to proceed with your plans! Red tape can stop you from working and delay projects. On the other hand, governments would argue that red tape is necessary to regulate the actions of companies! For instance, there is a lot of red tape for businesses trying to operate in North Korea – there are laws and regulations companies need to abide by, which causes a lot of paperwork!!

Think Outside the Box

To think outside the box is an excellent idiom. It means to think of creative, unconventional solutions instead of common ones. Imagine that people’s thoughts were a box. Everything that they can, will, and do think about is in this box, and that person cannot imagine how anything outside of the box would work. Things outside the box seem far-fetched and unachievable. However, sometimes thinking outside of the box can provide the best solutions! There are some problems that normal thinking cannot solve. I watched a youtube video recently where a man’s dream job was to work for the UK’s biggest radio station. Everytime he sent an application the normal way, he never received a response. So… he thought outside of the box. He printed his resume/CV onto a massive piece of paper, and then stuck the paper onto the roof of his car. Then he parked the car underneath the radio station boss’ window – so when she looked out she would see his resume! He also included a QR code linked to a video in which he demonstrated his skills! He definitely thought outside of the box! Companies like google are looking for employees who can think outside the box.

Word of Mouth

Word of mouth is the passing of information from person to person using oral communication, which could be as simple as telling someone the time of day. Storytelling is a common form of word-of-mouth communication where one person tells others a story about a real event or something made up. Why have I included this in a business idiom episode? Well, word of mouth marketing is often the best way to get new customers. I am much more likely to try a new product or service if someone I know tells me about it. Online reviews are nowhere near as trustworthy as word of mouth!

Final Thought

Today I have introduced eight idioms perfect for business situations. Hopefully they will help you to understand native English speakers! Which idioms did you already know? Are any of the idioms new to you? Which is your favourite idiom?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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