Business English blog articles

What makes a great business English learner?

Ninety percent of the time, when a participant tells me “I am just not good with languages,” it turns out to be false. Much more common is that the person’s previous experience with poor learning materials and inadequate methods led them to have two limiting beliefs: that they were not cut out for learning a language, and that language learning is a difficult, boring process. The following success story of InCorporate training participant Karl from Germany shows what is possible even for a busy manager in his 50’s with an active private life. Find out what attitudes and behaviors drove Karl’s rapid progress, how he enjoyed doing it, and how you can improve your own journey by learning from Karl’s success.

As business English specialists, we often talk about what makes great training. From focusing on and developing the skills and qualities that make fantastic trainers, to highlighting the importance of the behaviors and characteristics required by clients to maximize the impact of training on their organizations, we’ve learned that every stakeholder holds unique responsibilities in ensuring great results.

Of course, great trainers, innovative, pragmatic training concepts, and supportive clients are all essential to excellent training programs. Equally important however—if not even more important— are the behaviors, qualities, and attitudes of the participants themselves. The most qualified and skilled trainers, the highest-quality training materials, and an unlimited training budget cannot go very far without motivated, ambitious, and proactive participants.

So, what does it take to be the kind of participant who gets the most out of training? Most people seem to believe that there are only two options: you are either naturally good with languages, or you must spend every minute of your spare time doing boring grammar exercises and memorizing lists of new vocabulary words. Well, I’m here to tell you, from years of experience as a trainer and from my formal studies of how languages are learned, that this is simply not true, and that improving can and should be enjoyable.

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Meet Karl

Occasionally as an InCorporate Trainer, I meet a participant who exemplifies the qualities and behaviors of an excellent learner, and that’s exactly what happened when I met Karl. Karl, a group leader in an accounting department of a large German company, has attended weekly one-to-one sessions with me for the last year. When he first told me about his incredible results—that he had gone from A1 (beginner) to C1 (proficient) English in just a couple of years—I almost couldn’t believe my ears. After just a few sessions with him, though, it became very clear to me why he had made such remarkable progress. I can summarize the four key characteristics that led to Karl’s success as proactivity, curiosity, consistency, and reflectiveness.

Let’s explore each one in a bit more detail.


When Karl made the decision to improve his English to increase his personal enjoyment and professional success, he took matters into his own hands. He didn’t overthink it. Instead, he started doing whatever he could do get a basic grasp of the language. As soon as he had a basic understanding, he spent as much time as he could immersing himself in the language. Specifically, he began listening to podcasts and news in English on his commute to work and found that his understanding kept getting better and better. He also found that this was a great way to make use of the time, as he had to be in the car anyway.

When he realized that he could understand more than he could speak, he hired some ‘tutors’ online—basically just people to practice conversing with. He found that this dramatically improved his confidence using the language, and it was incredibly interesting to chat with people from all over the world.

Finally, as soon as he realized that an InCorporate Trainer was available to him for private training, he jumped at the opportunity, and began integrating his foundational language skills with his professional life. Then, things really took off.


This one might come as a surprise to hard-working, results-driven people. Why does curiosity matter and how did it help Karl achieve such great results? There are at least two reasons.

Firstly, curiosity—wanting to know and learn more—is a highly motivating trait. Karl soon realized that improving his English connected him with the world and helped him to answer questions that he had. As his understanding improved, he began to forget that he was even listening, reading, and talking in English because he was so focused on the content of what he was listening to, reading, and talking about. We know from research into how people learn languages that this is hugely important: we learn language by understanding and really focusing on the message of what we are listening to. Karl’s curiosity about the world, current events, and the forces impacting his career and company became a highly motivating force for his journey.

Secondly, Karl had an attitude of curiosity about the language itself. Every week, he came to his training session with questions and comments about something he had encountered in English at work. An idiom, a pun, a slogan, an abbreviation—Karl noticed that there is always something to be learned, discussed, and explored. He also brought in presentations, documents, and emails from his working life. This openness means that he is always paying attention to the little details, and attention drives learning. (In contrast, I sometimes ask participants about what the English around them means or if they have ever explored it or thought about it. “GPD? I have no idea…it’s just what we call the talk with our boss each year.” Karl wouldn’t let the abbreviation GPD pass by him without dissecting it, analyzing it, and learning something from it).


This one is easy to understand but particularly important in practice. Not only was he consistent with his self-directed learning, but he also prioritized attending his training sessions very regularly, ensuring near-weekly practice. This gave us plenty of time to review previous material and integrate current work issues and world events into our ongoing conversation.

Under consistency, I would also file Karl’s focus on ‘little wins.’ Instead of needing to be perfect right away, he learned to enjoy the small successes, from delivering a successful presentation at work, to navigating a difficult situation while traveling in the US. He focused on what he could do thanks to training and learning as opposed to what he couldn’t do yet.


We’ve already seen how Karl reflects on the English around him as an active and curious learner. But importantly, he also reflects on the learning process itself. Not only did he come to training with specific language related questions, but he also came with questions and reflections about the process of learning a language and the strategies he used to improve.

It was interesting to hear how many of his experiences matched what I know about learning from a scholarly perspective. For example, Karl would often say things like  “I don’t really know any rules, I just have an intuitive feel for what I’m saying.” Karl’s experience matches research in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) —knowing about language (knowing ‘rules’) is a very different thing than knowing language (being able to use language naturally). In fact, with such a good intuitive understanding, developed through many hours of listening, reading, and conversing in English, when Karl did need to polish up his English with a rule, he was able to grasp it very quickly and easily. In contrast, people who focus too much on the rules of language, without enough exposure to input and practice using language, often struggle for many years to improve their skills. Karl’s experience highlights the importance of learning by doing when it comes to language learning.

Learning from Karl

While having a great trainer, quality training materials, and a supportive client are essential for effective language training, the behaviors, qualities, and attitudes of participants themselves are equally important. Participants like Karl, who are proactive, curious, consistent, and reflective, are the ones who achieve remarkable progress in their language learning journey. Here are some practical takeaways from Karl’s success story:

  • Be proactive: There has never been a better time to be a language learner. Find ways to include more English in your daily routine. Listen and read about things that interest you and take opportunities to practice speaking and writing. Take your learning into your own hands. If you are lucky enough to have an InCorporate Trainer, use them! Your trainer is there to support you with on-the-job training.
  • Be curious: Use your natural interests to drive your learning and develop an attitude of curiosity towards the language itself. Here’s an easy way to start: Go to YouTube. Search for a hobby, an interest of yours, or a professional topic or skill you want to know more about, in English. Find content that truly interests and engages you and get lost in it.
  • Be consistent: Practicing a little but often beats a lot of practice once in a while. Karl listened to podcasts on his commute to and from work, had two conversations per week with his tutors, and showed up every week to his private training session. Think of ways you can take a little-by-little approach. If you have InCorporate Training, attend training as often as you can. Also, focus on the small successes. Can you do or say something in English this month that you couldn’t last month? Congratulations. That’s real progress.
  • Be reflective: If you work for an international company like Karl, chances are, English is all around you. Engage with it daily. InCorporate Trainers are thrilled when participants bring in documents, emails, questions, and ideas to explore in training. You don’t need a coursebook when you are surrounded by a real-world coursebook and have a professional trainer to guide you.

Mastering a language is a lengthy process, but you’d be surprised at how quickly things get moving when you get the basic behaviors and mindset in place. Importantly, you have to find ways to enjoy the journey itself, just like Karl.



What will training look like in 2030? (survey)

Our clients have trusted us to deliver practical training solutions since 1994. One of the lessons we’ve learned over the years is the importance of spotting patterns. Being able to proactively meet our clients’ needs adds value and feels right. With that in mind, towards the end of 2020 we began gathering perspectives from our network. We spoke with 94 of our clients, leads and contacts (43 L&D professionals and 51 team leaders). 31 people were interviewed face to face.  The remaining 63 were initially interviewed through an online survey. Some excerpts and the results of the survey are below. If you are interested to read the full document, you can download it here.

The rise in individualised, self service training clearly shifts the obligation onto the learner

Almost everyone who took part in our survey envisaged training increasingly becoming personalised. This means that, for better or for worse, the responsibility for learning will shift to the learner. Employees will be expected to select, organise and take part in training, rather than have management and L&D mandate it and organize it.


“Training will be like scheduled TV and Netflix. Individuals will expect to find what they want when they want it and how they want it. Central L&D departments will be about making helping and guiding learners and scheduling if required. Learning is learner driven. The L&D departments are less needed” N.L. (CEO)


Technology is enabling and driving learning on demand

Almost all interviewees see technology playing an increasingly pivotal role in learning and feelings are mixed. More and more interviewees expect learners to access learning in a range of formats via smartphones and tablets. Many employers will choose this route as a low cost training solution. Some see technology as the driver behind this change, but interestingly a few pointed out that the very human desire to communicate itself is what pushes the advancements in the technology. Either way, technology in training is key to enabling and driving learning on demand.


“I see this digital training world being about learning on demand. Short, focused learning will be the majority. People have a problem or a need and then they find their own solution.” G.R. (L&D EMEA)


“I anticipate that the trends I’m seeing today will continue flexible learning, bite sized learning, the fragmentation of learning so that people focus on what they need to know or learn at that moment. This will be software based and virtual … and I feel that the solutions we see today with the big platforms is bullshit, but everybody believes in it. We used to have books and now
we have ‘animated summaries’. This isn’t learning” K.K. (L&D Manager)


Managers believe their companies will be investing more in learning but L&D professionals believe the opposite

This finding deserves to be explored more. None of the line managers expected to see L&D investment shrink BUT 41% of L&D professionals did. Equally surprising was that 60% of line managers expected to see more money invested in L&D … compared to just 18% of L&D professionals.


Thoughts are divided on the need to develop English language skills in staff

Both L&D managers and line managers are split down the middle on whether companies will need to be investing in Business English training. Our first assumption was that this was connected to the type of industry, the country or even the company size, but we could not find a pattern with the sample size (of 43 L&D professionals and 51 team leaders, managers and senior


“We will less likely hire staff who don’t have necessary language skills, and if we do we will be looking for a service to bring them up to speed fast so they can perform on the job”. D.F. (Technical Manager)


“I hear a lot from our HR that our new hires can work in English. I don’t think this is accurate. Some of them have spent a year in a foreign country, and many of them have good English listening
skills. But many of them aren’t so called advanced. They don’t have the communication skills we need and the emails they are writing just aren’t professional enough!” C.G. (Senior Manager)



Download the full version

If you are interested to read more about training in 2030, you can download the full version of the survey here.

Rescheduling meetings in English

As an InCorporate Trainer, I provide business English training and support to an engineering multinational within their offices. Most of my participants attend meetings with clients, partners and colleagues, and sometimes it’s necessary to reschedule a meeting via email. My participants are concerned about the tone of the email, letting others down, and losing trust and credibility. Based on my work with them, here are a few examples, tips and phrases that you can use when you need to reschedule a meeting in English. 

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Reschedule with as much notice as possible

This gives others the chance to use their time as efficiently as possible and reduces the impact and inconvenience. Waiting until the last minute to reschedule the meeting, means no one else will have a chance to schedule another activity during this time. If it happens frequently it damages your emotional bank account. As you can see from the example mail below, the reason for the change has been given. Transparency is valued and builds trust. If you have a reasonable reason for rescheduling the meeting and you share this, others will find the change easier to accept. If you are informing them a few days in advance a polite email to is usually fine. This email has 3 steps:

  1. Shares the reason why
  2. Says sorry for the inconvenience
  3. Suggests another time

Dear Ralf,

I’m very sorry, but I need to reschedule our status update meeting set for Thursday. I need to stand in for my colleague who is unexpectedly unable to lead a client workshop. I am aware that our meeting needs to happen before we can move on the next quality gate, so I’d like to suggest that we meet on Monday 6th instead. I believe everyone is able to attend, right? If not, please let me know and I’ll look for another alternative. Sorry again for the inconvenience and I hope that we are able to find a suitable solution.

Thanks in advance,

Reschedule at the last minute

How you handle rescheduling your meeting at the last minute depends very much on whom you’re meeting, why you are meeting and how big a problem it is to reschedule the day before. Sickness and family disasters aside, rescheduling on the day of the meeting really does deserve a personal phone call. Using the phone is personal, shows you care and also speeds up the process of finding a new date that fits both sides. On those very rare occasions when you need to cancel a meeting an hour before then get ready to eat humble pie. Again, do it by phone, apologize, explain why and show you want to find a new date –  even if you can’t do this right then and there. Then consider showing you appreciate their patience by following up later with a thank you email. For example …

Dear Ralf,

I just wanted to write and say thank you once again for your flexibility. I really do appreciate it. Talking though our options regarding the NCC presentation is very important to me and I’d like to reschedule quickly and find a time that suits you.  I can move things around and find time to meet on Monday (10:00 – 14:15) or Thursday (9:00 – 13.00). If neither of these work for you then please make some suggestions and I’ll do my very best to find a solution. Once again, I’m very sorry for the inconvenience and thanks for your understanding.


Explaining the reason

  • There is an urgent work-related problem which I need to solve.
  • I’ve been called away to deal with a problem.
  • I’ve been double booked and need to prioritize the client meeting.  I hope you understand.
  • I need to cover for a colleague who is out of the office for several days.
  • I have a family situation I need to prioritize.

Showing appreciation

  • I appreciate your flexibility.
  • Thank you in advance for your understanding.
  • I really appreciate your support/help.

Phrases for apologizing

  • I’m sorry, I’m afraid I will need to move the date of our meeting.
  • Can we please find a new date? I’m really sorry, things have changed on my side.
  • I’m truly sorry but I can’t make the day/time we planned.
  • I apologize for changing things last minute.
  • I’m sorry about this, I was looking forward to our meeting.

Suggesting an alternative meeting time

  • Does X, Y, or Z work for you?
  • I can offer X or Y. If neither of those fit, please make a couple of suggestions and I will do my best to make it work.
  • I’m available on X, or Y, at A or B.
  • I can offer… / I’m free on…
  • Anytime on Friday works me.
Fore more information

If you would like to learn more about how our InCorporate Trainers provide on-the-job support and coaching for clients then take a look at

The secret L&D manager: What makes training effective?

This month’s secret training manager is Italian and has worked in a variety of fields including public research organizations and service companies. Here she talks with Scott Levey about the basic elements that make training and trainers effective.

eBook: The definitive checklist for qualifying training providers

What makes training effective?

To me an effective training is a training that uses most of the senses. Meaning: seeing, hearing, touching. The learners need to experience things and be actively engaged. Of course, the training needs to cover the thinking side, but adult learners need to learn by doing things. A good training event also has to be designed to have different activities and moments. For example, it needs moments to listen and get input and ideas, moments to pause and ponder on the theory that was just presented to you, moments to experiment, and moments to recap. I want the trainer to also plan in multiple moments where they cover again the main and salient points of the training.  For me this is essential.  I would also say that effective training sessions need to have a certain pace and this pace changes depending on the moment.  After lunch the trainer will increase the pace to get people moving again. Alternatively, the pace may slow down if the trainer sees that the participants aren’t following what the trainer is trying to do or trying to say.  So that’s what I think makes an effective training.

What makes the trainer effective? I mean you yourself have worked with many trainers and you have also trained yourself, haven’t you?

Well the most obvious answer would be that the trainer is the subject matter expert. She is an expert in her field and has real experience … but that isn’t enough. I’m going to give you a trivial example but I think everyone can relate to it. It’s about my daughter. She’s in high school right now and her math teacher is brilliant. He has a very brilliant mind … but he is not a pedagogue, so he is a teacher by definition but he is not a teacher through experience, and he is not patient with them. He knows his stuff, and is really smart, but he doesn’t know how to convey the salient points to my daughter or his class.  When I think back to the many companies I have worked in, I have also seen similar experiences with internal training sessions ran in various topics. It could be IT related, quality management, HR or technical skills.  Being a subject matter expert is the start but not the end.

Being an expert is not enough; you also need to be an expert in pedagogy, you need to be patient and you need to be attentive to the participants and allow them to ask questions. You need also to be able to shut down any conversation that strays from the topic because it can become difficult and you can waste time and not reach your training goals. This is not good because as we know training has an agenda and you need to stay on track.

Somehow a trainer also needs to be very confident and have some leadership behaviors, because she’s the leader of the group for the time of the training. Finally, I think an effective trainer has to have those storytelling skills where you put theory and experience into a nice little story that illustrates the point. And is easy to understand and remember

So, what I’m saying is an effective trainer is somebody who

  1. Is a subject matter expert
  2. Is a good communicator
  3. Is people-oriented
  4. Can lead a group
  5. Has the skills needed to design training so there are the right moments at the right times
  6. Has the skills to deliver the training in an engaging way and manage the pace
  7. Is focused and reaches the objective set for the training

Train-the-trainer courses can really help for both new and confident trainers … but it is my opinion that nothing really beats experience. So that’s what I think makes a trainer a good trainer.

Who is the secret L&D manager?

The “secret L&D manager” is actually a group of L&D managers. They are real people who would prefer not to mention their name or company – but do want to write anonymously so they can openly and directly share their ideas and experience with their peers.

You can meet more of our secret L&D managers here …


Practical rules and resources for writing quality emails

This might be difficult to imagine if you are under 35, but when I started my career in finance there was no email. All written communication was by letter, and if something was really urgent you might send a telex or a fax. Written communication was an investment – an investment in time and in labour.  The process of sending a letter was a slow one; dictating it, the secretary/typist typing it, checking it, finally signing it, putting it in an envelope and posting it. There was no word processing software – if you wanted to make changes to the content, you returned it to the typist who would retype it.  Again, this may be difficult to imagine, but in some ways this wasn’t such a bad thing and there was a plus side to the writer and the reader. Exactly because it was so time consuming and labour intensive, you thought carefully about what you wanted to say and how you were going to say it. You invested in the quality of your written communication.

Writing emails that people read: Free eBook download

Today email communication, combined with documents being available online, has replaced the letter. Email beats snail mail letters. Approximately 280 billion emails are sent every day, and the average number of business emails sent each day is around 125 billion. In a recent workshop on Managing conflict in virtual teams one purchaser shared he had received 68 from a single person in one day!

Writing emails requires little effort and little thought– and obviously this is not always a good thing. Take a look at your inbox and ask yourself how many of these emails are unclear, unnecessary or simply unwanted. So why do we send so many? The simple answer is because we can. The process is simple, quick and easy. The challenge organizations face today is keeping the good stuff (quick, easy, simple) while eliminating the down sides.  This is made harder by our convictions that our writing is clear and understandable despite research showing we often overestimate this.

So if you want your mails to be clear, necessary and wanted then start with these 3 practical rules.

Write clear and understandable subject lines

It’s very likely that your reader is busy and that they have a lot of pulls on their time. Regardless of whether they are using a laptop, tablet or phone they will see your name/email address and your subject line. A clear and understandable subject line helps them prioritize your email, shows respect for their time, and builds trust. A clear subject line can also help catch your recipient’s attention and encourage them to deal with your mail quickly. Consider using BLUF (bottom line up front) in your subject line and also at the very start of your email.  Another simple tip that many virtual teams adopt is to  agree with your team members on a selection of limited key words (e.g Info, Action, Decision).  For more simple and practical advice plus a training activity on effective subject lines check out this post.
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Write it how you’d say it

Many of us (and I am guilty of this) use a different style when writing.  Some people opt for different words, more complicated expressions and generally take longer to say something in writing than we would face to face.

For example…. “It has been brought to my attention that the complexities of the user interface are making life difficult for some of our users. I’d like to suggest we discuss this together”. Flipping it around some people also write emails in note form, or an overly casual style e.g. “Heard user interface difficult 4 user. Talk?” Writing as you speak would give you  “Some of our users are finding the user interface difficult to use. Can we talk about this together?”

Writing in a clear and direct style definitely helps clarity.  Pay attention to tone, and as a reader try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt when you feel the tone is odd.

Take a moment before you hit send

In the days when we sent letters we took a lot of time to think about what we were writing. We planned and drafted and there were many opportunities to change what we wanted to say or how we wanted to say it. You could read your letter through before signing it and at that moment decide if you really wanted to send it.
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Today these inbuilt pauses don’t exist. You quickly read a mail, write the response and hit send. It is often done on the move and squeezed between other tasks, conversations etc.  That is generally OK for short, routine communications but for those that are longer, complicated or sensitive, type once but look twice is a good rule to follow.  Write your email, don’t add the address and put it in your drafts folder (or email it to yourself). Read it later and if it’s clear, understandable and unemotional – send it. For more help on writing emotionally neutral emails, see here.


How to avoid your emails going viral

“Worst email ever?”  was the headline that got my attention when I read my newspaper on a Saturday morning. The story was about an Australian manager who had sent an email which he later described himself as a “Gordon Ramsay meets Donald Trump-style email rant”.  His email went viral on Twitter (#bossoftheyear) and the story was an online sensation for a couple of days. 

Although, or maybe because, we send and receive countless emails every day it is sometimes easy to forget some of the golden rules of email etiquette. To give the manager his dues he later apologized to his staff (“It seems I am becoming an online sensation for how NOT to communicate – and in hindsight I agree!!”), but his story is a timely reminder to review some important dos and don’ts for emailing. Starting with the most important one, here are six tips for you to consider…

Writing emails that people read: Free eBook download

Tip 1 – Don’t send emails when you are angry / frustrated/ tired etc

This is, and always will be, the first rule of email communication. In “Writing emails that people read”, our most downloaded ebook with 18,000 downloads to date, we suggest you write the whole email if it will make you feel better and help you to get some-thing out of your system – BUT only add the recipients and send it after you have had space and time to reflect and think about what you are sending and its potential impact. Rule #2 builds on this by emphasizing that email is great for giving information, sharing updates or making simple requests. However, use the phone if something could be a sensitive or emotional topic. When it comes to management communication, in our Practical Toolbox for Managers training we also suggest that emotional communication is done face-to-face, via Webex or over the phone. Email just doesn’t help … although you might feel better for a few minutes.

As the Australian manger himself later said, he sent it “in a moment of seeing red and it most definitely should not have happened”.

Tip 2 – Watch your tone, mind your language

Emails need to be respectful and clear. Body language, facial expressions and tone of voice cannot be communicated by email. How an email sounds and the message it sends are determined only by the words that we use. Read this blog post if you want to learn more about tone in emails. Make sure that your message is respectful and clear. In his viral email the manager knew he’d misjudged this and later wrote “Obviously some of you know me pretty well and know I shoot from the hip, but obviously others don’t”.

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Tip 3 – Get the person’s name right

This is a very personal tip for me. I get a lot of emails from French contacts and probably 20% start with Hi Taylor (my first name is Ian). When you type the recipient’s name in the “To” line or select them from your address book – make sure it’s the right person. (In 2000, a British schoolgirl was on the receiving end of inappropriate business emails after a US naval commander accidentally added her to his confidential mailing list.) Be sure that the name you use at the beginning of the mail is the name of the person in the address line and that you have spelt it correctly.

Tip 4 – KISS: Keep it short and simple

Everybody is busy and everybody gets a lot of emails.  The average number of emails received per day in 2018 is 97!  If each email takes just 2 minutes to read and deal with this is 3 hours of your day done already!

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Schnelle Behebung von 5 typischen Fehlern, die deutschsprachige Personen auf Englisch machen.

Germans generally speak good business English. A worldwide study published by Harvard Business review ranked Germany 14th for English workforce proficiency  (or “high” and with a score of 60.2 out of 100).  In another study, 100% of German employers interviewed said that English skills are significant for their organization. Evidence like this shows why Germans are rightfully proud of their English skills – and the vast majority of Germans we work with want to be even better. If your first language is German, and you want to improve your English at work, you might find it frustrating that your English-speaking colleagues don’t correct you. After all, you can’t get better if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong! In this post, we’re going to take a look at a handful of German speaker errors that are really common in Business English. The good news? They’re really easily fixed.
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1. “We discussed about last month’s figures at the meeting.”

In English we don’t discuss about something. To fix it, leave out the about after the verb discuss. So the correct English sentence is “We discussed last month’s figures at the meeting.” Keep in mind that you can use about after the noun “discussions” as in “There were discussions about last month’s figures at the meeting”.

2. “Good morning together.”

This is a direct translation of a lovely (and efficient) German way of greeting everyone at the same time. Logically, together, makes 100% sense but it doesn’t work in English. How can you fix it? As with about in the last example, cut it out completely. The correct English phrase is simply “Good morning”.  You can also use alternatives like “Good morning everyone” or “Morning all” (informal)

3. “We see us tomorrow.”

This is also a direct translation from German. We don’t have an identical phrase in English, so it sounds understandable, but strange in English. In this case, you need to use another expression. So the correct English sentence is “We’ll see each other tomorrow”.  You can also use “See you tomorrow.” or “Look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

4. “I visit normally on Thursdays my clients in Bamberg.”

The word order is German. The sentence is 100% understandable, but it simply sounds wrong in English (likewise when English speakers speak German it can be understandable but grammatically wrong). Adverbs of frequency (words like: normally, sometimes, always, never) almost always go between the person (I) and the verb (visit). So, the correct English sentence is “ I normally visit my clients in Bamberg on Thursdays.”

5. “I work since five years by my company.”

There are only 8 words here, but there are actually 4 mistakes in this sentence.

  1. The tense (work) is wrong.
  2. We can’t combine since and a period of time.
  3. By is not the right preposition.
  4. The word order is German.

Here’s how to fix it:

  • If something started in the past, is happening now, and is likely to continue in the future, then we usually use present perfect simple or continuous e.g. I have worked / I have been working…
  • We can use since with a point in time, and for with a period of time. e.g. since 2012/ for 5 years.
  • There are very few concrete rules for prepositions. You just need to develop a feel for them and learn them in a context. In English we say “ We work for a company”.
  • Word order. This is the same as in the last example – time generally goes to the end of the sentence in English.

So, the correct English sentence is “I have been working for my company for five years.”

And if you’d like more practice then check out our latest Ebook “Common English mistakes (Germans make) and how to correct them”.

Business English training: on-the-job training (for the job)

On-the-job (OTJ) training has been a cornerstone in our approach to in-house Business English training since our first InCorporate Trainers started their jobs (one of them was Scott Levey). When we explain the concept of on-the-job training to potential clients, they “understand” what we’re saying … BUT …they don’t really “get” how effective and beneficial on-the-job training is until they have seen it in action. This post aims to explain what it is, how it works, and how participants benefit, using some non-specific examples of on-the-job training.

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The benefits of on-the-job training

OTJ training is highly effective because the training takes place alongside and as part of your daily work. The trainer uses your work situations (your emails, your virtual meetings, your plant tours) as the basis for your learning. On-the-job training takes place at work, while you are working. This brings two huge benefits.

  1. You maximize your time because you are benefiting from training while you are working.
  2. You can directly transfer what you learn to your job. Your training is completely based on a real and concrete task. Everything you learn is relevant.

If you are familiar with the 70-20-10 model, you’ll know that 70% of learning comes through “doing” and from “experience”. Learning while you work is highly effective and this is the heart of on-the-job training.

“I helped Hans to de-escalate a situation in Supply Chain Management. Hans felt that the American party was wound-up and overly difficult. Hans brainstormed phrases with my help and he wrote a draft email. I helped him improve the structure and tone of the email and suggested he rewrote some of his sentences in plain English. A few hours later, the American party positively replied and the whole thing was solved by the time Hans went home.”

What exactly is on-the-job training and how does it work?

With on-the-job training, the trainer is there when you need assistance in preparing emails, specifications, manuals, reports, slides and other documentation. The trainer can support you in the planning, writing and reviewing stage. The trainer is also available to you for preparing meetings, phone calls, web meetings, teleconferences, presentations and negotiations.  They can then shadow you in action and provide personalized and situationally-based feedback.

On-the-job training focuses on your priorities at work and on you improving your business English in those areas. It can be

  • reactive where you ask the trainer for help “Can you help me improve these slides?”
  • proactive where the trainer encourages you to share work you have done/are doing in English “I heard you are involved in writing the R-Spec for the new project. How can I support you?”

“One of my participants, a product manager, had to deliver two presentations in English. It was basically the same presentation, but for two different audiences.  Observing her in our first practice session, I made a note of language points to work on. We worked on these, and a few other things (key messages, adapting messages to different audiences, Q&A session) over the next week. She delivered the presentations to me again, already with much more confidence and fluency – and then she practised with a few colleagues in a weekly group session and benefitted from both their positive feedback and the confidence boost.  Finally, I watched her deliver from the back and she did great.  After the presentations we debriefed and I shared my feedback (what went really well, what would she like to focus more on next time etc) . She was too critical of her performance and I helped her to be realistic about what she needs to focus on.”

What on-the-job training isn’t

What the trainer does not do is write the email/document for you (where’s the learning in that?). One common misconception is that on-the-job trainers are translators or proof readers. They’re not, in the same way that translators and proof readers aren’t trainers. Collaborative proof reading and translation can be an option, but the ownership needs to stay with the learner.

Another misconception is that on-the-job training is traditional “classroom training” during work time. The trainer will certainly use the “insider” view and what they have seen on-the-job to tailor traditional “off the job” training. This means your group training, coaching, 1-1 training, and seminars are closer to your workplace and that the transfer of learning is smoother.  But “on the job” training is learning while actually doing. There’s a good example of how this looks in action in an R&D department here.

“Three of my participants had written a 300-page instruction manual and they came to me with the request to help them improve it. Nobody in their department understood it enough to successfully use the system that it was meant to explain. I told them I would read it. Oh boy. We worked on writing with the reader in mind, structuring documents to make them scannable and writing in plain English. Visuals replaced paragraphs and we even created a few video tutorials too.  Four weeks later, they produced a second manual. Over one hundred pages lighter, it was clear, comprehensive, mistake free, and written in a style that everyone could understand, even me. As a result, the system that was supposed to make everyone’s job easier made everyone’s job easier.”

Bringing on-the-job training to life

We sign confidentiality agreements with our clients. Even when we don’t, we wouldn’t use their actual documentation online, so these examples are non-specific and Hans is not really called Hans … she’s called XXXX.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of this approach, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Virtual training v. face-to-face training: How does it compare?

James Culver is a partner at Target Training Gmbh and has 25 years of experience in delivering customized training solutions. His career has encompassed being a HR Training Manager, a Major in the US Army National Guard and a lecturer at the International School of Management. He’s also a talented percussionist and storyteller. In the final part of this series of blog posts on Virtual Training delivery, he answered the following questions…

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You have 25 years’ experience in training delivery. When did you start delivering virtual training?

James Since the 90s. In the United States we started very early with virtual delivery in the community college system. We often had remote sites of small groups of students who still wanted to take advantage of the kinds of courses that we would offer on the main campus, so we started delivering virtual training . When I started working with virtual training it was extremely expensive to do some of this work. Our system was basically a camera set-up and the professor or the trainer was just speaking to the camera. There was very little interaction available with the other sites and it was like TV school.

How would you say that virtual delivery compares with face-to-face delivery?

James There are probably two things to think about. One is the content that one delivers and the other is the context. By context I mean everything that surrounds the content. How things are being done, who is interacting with whom and how they are interacting – the richness of the communication. As far as content is concerned, the topic that’s covered, the information that’s shared, I’d say virtual delivery and face-to-face delivery compare quite favourably. In fact, the virtual platforms that we use at Target Training are tailor made for delivering lots of content in interesting ways. It’s very easy to add videos, recordings, to have whiteboards etc. For example, if we have content that is pre-prepared on a slide and made available to people, they can annotate it, they can put questions there etc. That’s really, really easy on a virtual platform.

What is harder most of the time is everything that we get from being in the same room as someone. Facial expression change, body language changes. We often don’t see or get that in a virtual environment, even with the market-leading systems. The challenge as a trainer is that we risk missing  a large chunk of the information that we would get from participants in a classic face-to-face training session. That is a major challenge. As a trainer in face-to-face training I have a feel for how things are going because I’m in the room. It’s much more difficult to have a feel for how things are going, when you’re in a virtual environment. And you need that “feel” so you can adjust and give the participants the best possible learning experience.

What are your workaround strategies for that?

James There are workaround strategies and through external and internal training and on-the-job experience our  trainers use them. One strategy is that you have to ask a lot of open and closed ‘check questions.’ Questions like “Are you with me?”, “Is that clear?”, “So what are the key points you’re taking from this?”, “What are your questions so far?” Experienced virtual trainers will ask those kinds of questions every 2 to 3 minutes.  Essentially, as a trainer you have a 2 to 3 minute time limit for your input before you ask a check question, and the check questions should be both open to the group and targeted at an individual too.

Which training themes lend themselves best to virtual delivery and which don’t?

James The themes that lend themselves best to virtual delivery are those that are more content focused – for example classic presentation skills training or presentations delivered virtually.  These types of training solutions focus on input, tips, do’s and don’ts, best practice sharing and then practice-feedback -practice – feedback etc.

Another theme that works very well for us when delivered virtually is virtual team training, whether it be working in virtual teams or leading virtual teams. By their very nature, virtual teams are dispersed so the virtual delivery format fits naturally. Plus, you are training them using the tools they need to master themselves. And of course, another benefit is if the training is for a specific virtual team the shared training experience strengthens the team itself.

The types of training solutions that are more challenging when delivered virtually are those where we are trying to change ourselves or others. Topics such as assertiveness or self-efficiency need to be thought through and developed carefully if they are going to be more than an information dump. Here the coaching aspect is far more important.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, management and leadership training can work really well when done virtually. Our Driving Performance solution is a good example of this. The secret here is to emphasize the bite-sized learning, provide additional resources outside the session e.g. flipped classrooms with relevant videos and articles, and provide opportunities for one-on-one conversations too.

More on virtual delivery

Please see the posts below, or start here.


10 more sporting idioms you will hear in business meetings

Last year, we put together a list of 10 common American sport idioms that were well-received by our clients and readers.  Since the blog post was so popular, we wanted to share even more more commonly used sport idioms you may hear around the office …

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to take a rain check

From baseball, meaning ‘I can’t now, but let’s do it another time’.  “Thanks for the invite to happy hour, but can I take a rain check?  I need to get home for dinner with my family.”

a Hail Mary pass

From American football, meaning ‘a last minute, desperate attempt at something’. “We offered the client a 15% reduction in price as a Hail Mary to win their business.”

to touch base (with someone)

From baseball, meaning ‘get in contact with someone’. “Can you touch base with Chester next week to see how he is doing with the forecast numbers?”

a front runner

From horse racing, meaning ‘the person who is leading but hasn’t won yet’. “I think we are the front runner for the winning the account, but XYZ’s offer was also very strong.”

the ball is in (someone’s) court

From tennis, meaning ‘it is someone’s turn to take action or make the next move’. “I received an offer for a new job.  The ball is now in my court to ask for more money or decline it.”

the home stretch

From horse racing, meaning ‘to be near the end” or ´to be in the last stage or phase’.  “This has certainly been a challenging project, but we are now in the home stretch so let’s stay focussed and keep on schedule.”

to get the ball rolling

From ball games, meaning ‘to start something’. “OK, now we’re all here for today’s meeting let’s get the ball rolling. Heinz, can you start with an update on ….”

to keep your eye on the ball

From ball games, meaning  ‘to stay alert’. “We have worked with this client before and we know that they can be chaotic. We need to keep our eyes on the ball, especially when it comes to safety on site.”

par for the course

From golf, meaning ‘something that is normal or to be expected’.  ‘Jim was late for the meeting again today.  That is par for the course with him.’

to strike out

From baseball, meaning ‘to fail at something’.  ‘I have tried to get a meeting with the Head of Purchasing 5 times but have struck out each time.’

Quick fixes for 5 typical mistakes German speakers make in English

Germans generally speak good business English. A worldwide study published by Harvard Business review ranked Germany 14th for English workforce proficiency (or “high” and with a score of 60.2 out of 100). In another study, 100% of German employers interviewed said that English skills are significant for their organization. Evidence like this shows why Germans are rightfully proud of their English skills – and the vast majority of Germans we work with want to be even better. If your first language is German, and you want to improve your English at work, you might find it frustrating that your English-speaking colleagues don’t correct you. After all, you can’t get better if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong! In this post, we’re going to take a look at a handful of German speaker errors that are really common in Business English. The good news? They’re really easily fixed..
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1. “We discussed about last month’s figures at the meeting.”

In English we don’t discuss about something. To fix it, leave out the about after the verb discuss. So the correct English sentence is “We discussed last month’s figures at the meeting.” Keep in mind that you can use about after the noun “discussions” as in “There were discussions about last month’s figures at the meeting”.

2. “Good morning together.”

This is a direct translation of a lovely (and efficient) German way of greeting everyone at the same time. Logically, together, makes 100% sense but it doesn’t work in English. How can you fix it? As with about in the last example, cut it out completely. The correct English phrase is simply “Good morning”. You can also use alternatives like “Good morning everyone” or “Morning all” (informal)

3. “We see us tomorrow.”

This is also a direct translation from German. We don’t have an identical phrase in English, so it sounds understandable, but strange in English. In this case, you need to use another expression. So the correct English sentence is “We’ll see each other tomorrow”. You can also use “See you tomorrow.” or “Look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

4. “I visit normally on Thursdays my clients in Bamberg.”

The word order is German. The sentence is 100% understandable, but it simply sounds wrong in English (likewise when English speakers speak German it can be understandable but grammatically wrong). Adverbs of frequency (words like: normally, sometimes, always, never) almost always go between the person (I) and the verb (visit). So, the correct English sentence is “ I normally visit my clients in Bamberg on Thursdays.”

5. “I work since five years by my company.”

There are only 8 words here, but there are actually 4 mistakes in this sentence.

  1. The tense (work) is wrong.
  2. We can’t combine since and a period of time.
  3. By is not the right preposition.
  4. The word order is German.

Here’s how to fix it:

  • If something started in the past, is happening now, and is likely to continue in the future, then we usually use present perfect simple or continuous e.g. I have worked / I have been working…
  • We can use since with a point in time, and for with a period of time. e.g. since 2012/ for 5 years.
  • There are very few concrete rules for prepositions. You just need to develop a feel for them and learn them in a context. In English we say “ We work for a company”.
  • Word order. This is the same as in the last example – time generally goes to the end of the sentence in English.

So, the correct English sentence is “I have been working for my company for five years.”

And if you’d like more practice then check out our latest Ebook “Common English mistakes (Germans make) and how to correct them”.

Getting people to read (and respond to) your emails

As everyone already knows, email is ubiquitous – in both our private and professional lives. Emails are easy to write and send – and we are inundated with them daily. As an in-house business English trainer at a major production site, I see daily the frustrations this can cause – not just for those receiving 90+ mails day (or 1 every 5 minutes!), but also for those sending the mails – knowing they may need to wait a while before hearing a reply. Recently, a manager I train in the automotive industry asked “How can I increase the chances that people respond to my emails?”

Studies have shown that people are more likely to respond to emails written in a simple, straightforward manner than to emails with more complex language. In fact, emails written at a 3rd grade level have been shown to have the highest response rate! So put away those thesauruses and get rid of those dependent clauses! Simple, concise writing is a main driver in increasing your response rate. As with any writing, placing your reader’s needs first is a must. There is no one magic formula for guaranteeing that people will respond to your email, but it’s important that you write emails that people will read. The tips outlined below will definitely tip the odds in your favour!

Writing emails that people read: Free eBook downloadTIP 1 – Keep your subject line obvious and short

Short, simple and obvious subject lines of only 3-4 words get the most responses. The most important thing, though, is to make sure the meaning is clear. Clarity beats ambiguity every time! Military personnel often use keywords e.g. ACTION, REQUEST, DECISION, INFO. This helps the reader immediately understand the purpose of the email. Then, just a couple more words to clarify the subject.


  • Prod Spec (vague)
  • End User Prod spec file plz send (relevant words but could be easier to understand the meaning!)
  • Request- Send Product Specifications file (optimal!)

TIP 2 – Use simple language

As part of my job, I work with engineers providing on-the-job English training. Last week Klaus (not his real name) asked me to help him understand a mail from a supplier. Klaus was struggling to understand …“Hitherto now, I have been unable to place the whereabouts of your aforementioned order, to which I would like to offer the following proposal, able to be fulfilled forthwith”.

Working together with Klaus we simplified it into “We’re sorry but we can’t find the order you mentioned in your email. However, we can suggest the following immediate solution …”.  As Klaus rightly said – why didn’t they just say that?

TIP 3 – Write human

In addition to simplicity, write with emotion! It doesn’t matter if that emotion is positive or negative, writing with any emotion is better than writing a neutral email with absolutely no emotion. The bottom line is: use a believable amount of emotion without getting too hostile or overly-sentimental.

Example of increasing positive emotion:

  • I want to meet next week to discuss my proposal. (neutral)
  • I would love to meet next week to discuss my proposal. (better but maybe a little over the top)
  • I’m definitely interested in meeting next week to discuss my proposal with you! (best!)

Example of increasing negative emotion:

  • Our experience with your product did not meet our expectations. (neutral)
  • From my experience today, I find the quality of your product to be sub-par. (better but “sub par” isn’t simple English)
  • Your product sucks. (too much human)
  • Based on my experiences today, the quality of your product is far below our expectations (best!)

TIP 4 – Write short sentences and paragraphs

When writing your email, make sure it’s an appropriate length. Imagine if you received a novel in your inbox. Would you even bother to read the first sentence? Probably not! The optimal length of an email is roughly 50-125 words, and the response rate slowly drops off as the emails get longer.  When you really need to write longer emails use sub-headings to break the text up.

TIP 5 – Keep the dialogue moving with clear questions

One final way to increase the chances your email will receive a response is to include a task, so ask a few questions! Otherwise, the recipient will most likely assume the purpose of your email is nothing more than to inform. Statistically, 1-3 questions are optimal. Any longer and it becomes a questionnaire, which quickly sends the email to the “do later” box. As I wrote earlier, you won’t get a response to every email you write, but you can change how you write your emails so that you are more likely to get a response when it counts most! And remember to use the phone or video calls if something is important, urgent or contains an emotional message.

Keep on developing your email writing skills with these blog posts

And if you’re looking for training (delivered virtually or face to face) then check out …

50 ways to start a conversation in English at work

Socializing and networking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Whether it be a language issue  or a question of skills and behaviors, many professionals struggle when networking and socializing with new people. How do you start a conversation when you walk into a meeting room and there are a lot of people you don’t know? Introducing yourself is the obvious first step: “Hi, my name’s Renate and I’m a member of the purchasing team.” … Easy… but what comes next?  If you are shy this can be awkward in your own language –  AND doing it in a foreign language can be really challenging!  Our InCorporate Trainers often find that seemingly small challenges such as this can cause an unnecessary amount of pressure. A few trainers have come up with 50 phrases to help you break the ice and start a conversation. Many of the phrases can be used in any context – but some are only used in certain situations. You don’t need to remember them all just pick the ones you feel comfortable with and can say naturally.
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Collecting someone from reception

  1. Did you have any problems finding us?
  2. Did you find the parking area ok?
  3. How are things going?
  4. I like your laptop bag. Where did you get it?
  5. Do you know…?
  6. What are you hoping to get out of today?
  7. How was your weekend?
  8. Did you hear that…?
  9. What have you been up to lately?
  10. Are many of your colleagues coming today?

Waiting for the presentation/meeting to start

  1. Is it OK if I sit here?
  2. I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is…
  3. Where are you from?
  4. I think you were at the XXX meeting last month, weren’t you?
  5. Do you know what the Wi-Fi code is?
  6. When did you arrive?
  7. What brings you here today?
  8. How was your journey?
  9. Nice weather / terrible weather, isn’t it?
  10. I could really use a coffee. Do you know where the machine is?

During the coffee break

  1. Do you mind if I join you?
  2. How’s the coffee?
  3. Can I pour you a coffee?
  4. What do you think of it so far?
  5. I was a bit late this morning; did I miss anything in the first 10 minutes?
  6. Which department are you in?
  7. Don’t you work with…?
  8. I can’t believe how many people are here today.
  9. Do you find it hot in here?
  10. I found it interesting that XX said …?

During lunch

  1. Is this seat taken?
  2. So, what do you think of this morning?
  3. Have you eaten here before?
  4. How’s your steak / fish etc.?
  5. Have you had a good day so far?
  6. Do you know many people here?
  7. Do you know what the program is for this afternoon?
  8. How did you get into this business?
  9. What do you do?
  10. Did you travel in today or come last night?

After a presentation/meeting

  1. What did you think of today?
  2. What’s been the highlight of the day for you?
  3. What have you learned today?
  4. I liked what xxx said about yyy.
  5. How’s today been for you?
  6. What do you think about…?
  7. What are you working on at the moment?
  8. How long have you been working here?
  9. Are you taking a taxi to the hotel/ train station / airport ?
  10. Do you have any plans for the weekend?

Even more resources

You’ve now got 50 practical phrases and of course there are  many, many more. Here are 5 more tips for you.

Your first virtual presentation – practical planning tips for beginners

The move to delivering presentations virtually isn’t natural for most of us.  Put simply, it feels weird. So here’s the good news. Most of the core principles behind what makes an effective presentation still apply. You need to know: what your message is, reflect on who your audience is, merge your message with their interests, have a clear structure, etc. In many ways delivering a presentation virtually requires the same knowledge and skills … but there are differences too. If you are a beginner to making presentations online there are 2 areas to think about –preparation and delivery.  Our clients often tell us the delivery stage is the area that worries them most BUT we can’t emphasize enough that making changes to the way you plan your virtual presentation is where you set the scene for success.  This blog post looks at the planning stage. 

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When you start planning your virtual presentations the 3 big questions to ask yourself are

  • How am I going to keep their attention?
  • What can I do in advance to feel more comfortable?
  • What if something goes wrong with the technology?

How am I going to keep their attention during my presentation?

Your audience’s attention span (how long they’ll concentrate on you and your message ) is shorter online than off line.  This is partly because they won’t have you to focus on in person, partly because they will have other distractions tempting them away (emails, watching colleagues etc) … and partly because they can pay less attention and you won’t notice.  So, to keep their attention you need to

  • Make your virtual presentation as short as possible. No advice we can give you will help your audience stay focused for 2 hours. Aim for 40 minutes maximum and break it into 2 parts if it’s longer.
  • Stay away from text heavy slides. We can read at least twice as fast as we can listen to you speak [] This means if all your information is written on the slide your audience will have read it before you are even half-way through talking about it. Your audience will then tune out and start doing something else while you tell them what they just read.
  • This means you need to rethink the way you design your slides. Your slides will often be the primary visual link you have to your listener. This means your slides need to be very visual – one powerful pictures is better than many, unusual images will recapture their attention and diagrams need to be clear.  Compare the 2 examples below.

What can I do in advance to feel more comfortable?

If this is your first time presenting virtually then

  • Know your content! This is obviously equally true when you make a presentation “in the flesh” but our experience is that presenters are more likely to turn “knowing content” into lots of notes and then read from them when they present virtually.  I remember one purchaser who wrote a complete script including notes when to pause!  Reading rather than speaking is going to really impact your energy levels, make you sound less natural and ultimately encourage your audience to start multi-tasking. You need to know what you want to say so you can focus on how you say it. (more in part 2)
  • Practice and practice again – If this is your first time then you can’t spend enough time practicing with someone else or set up a second computer so you can see what they’ll see. This will help you feel in control, more confident any your audience will thank you for it. Keep in mind that this is a learning curve and the sooner you start the better. DO NOT just work it out as you go along!
  • Think about the environment you’ll be presenting from and try to limit distractions and interruptions. If you can, present from a meeting room which is quiet.  Presenting from your desk in a large open office is going to be tough no matter how much experience you have.
  • Finally, you need to invest time in knowing your web or video conferencing platform really well! This is where a practice runs adds value. Almost all conferencing tools have getting started tours, how tos and tips and user guides. Some even offer free online courses. Use them and become comfortable with your technology.

What if something goes wrong with the technology?

This is less likely than you think but something going wrong with the technology is often top of most first-time presenter’s fears.  Here are 3 things you can do …

  • Practice using the system. The more practice you have the more you’ll trust it. I know I’m repeating myself and I’ll do it again … practice using the system.
  • Make sure your computer is updated, that you have a second power source (don’t rely on just your battery) and that you’ve closed any programs you won’t need
  • Organize for a more experienced colleague to be on hand (sometimes called a “producer”). When you are making presentations to larger audiences this “extra pair of hands in cyberspace” is essential.  You focus on the presentation and they focus on the technology.

To summarize

Success starts with planning your content, adapting your visuals, knowing your content so you can speak naturally, controlling your environment and being ready for the dreaded technical problem.There’s a lot more to presenting in a virtual environment and some of those things will be discussed in a future post. In the meantime, here’s an eBook that will help you deal with all of your presentations stress – virtual or not.

eBook: The definitive checklist for qualifying training providers

6 ways to improve your Business English by yourself

Whether you have English training at your companies or private training out of work, you probably know that to really improve your business English you need to take responsibility and control of your learning.  Just sitting passively in a training session once a week isn’t enough.  The good news is that according to popular research into language learning, we are all born autonomous learners. It is in our nature to be proactive, explore, and respond to our environment.  We naturally take charge of our learning by setting ourselves goals and we are driven by our own motivations and needs. This could be getting a promotion at work, being able to participate effectively in a meeting, working confidently on an international project or giving a successful presentation. To help you learn autonomously, knowing effective ways you can improve your business English independently is essential.  Here are some tried and tested strategies to improve your Business English by yourself!

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Set yourself learning goals

Setting yourself goals is motivating in anything you do and a great way to understand your own learning process. These goals can be daily, weekly or monthly and ones, which are achievable and realistic. Try to focus on SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound).   Your goals can be as simple as “I will record and learn 10 new business phrases I can use in project meetings”.  Once you have set yourself a goal you can assess yourself using simple online tools such as Quizlet. You can also download the app on your phone in order to review and assess progress on the go!


Put yourself in real life situations where you have to use business English. Take every opportunity to speak to your international business colleagues. Instead of writing an email, go ahead and pick up the phone! Try to participate in meetings, events, conferences and projects where you have the opportunity to practice. Communicate and socialize with English speakers you know at work or out of work, this could be going for a coffee, lunch or dinner.

Watch and listen

Try to take a little time every day to watch or listen to business related resources online. This could be news, podcasts, or videos.  The more you watch and listen to business English, the more you will train this skill and the easier it will get when you have a real situation at work.  The web is full of resources but to get you started TED Talks always has interesting speakers, The BBC’s Business Daily site has plenty of videos and audio reports and check out the Harvard Business Reviews’ Ideacast (also available on itunes) and videos.

Recording new vocabulary

Keep a small notebook or use your notes on your phone to record useful/ relevant business English phrases and words. If you want to get more creative, I suggest using a voice recorder to record this information.  Instead of just writing the English word and the equivalent in your language, try to also write an example sentence, something relevant/ personal to you and something you are likely to remember e.g. Word: negotiate “We had to negotiate with the supplier to get the best price”.  Try to review the new vocabulary daily in order to internalize it and challenge yourself to use a new word during your next meeting, in an email or on a presentation slide.

Writing practice

Start by downloading Grammarly. This is a free tool with which you can check all daily emails, presentations and documents in order to avoid grammar mistakes and punctuation errors. You can also keep a diary of your day or about your learning experience, which will give you some extra writing practice and is a great strategy for self-reflection. I train a senior project manager who takes 10 minutes at the end of each day to write notes on reflections, insights and ideas. He does this to practice writing notes in English to help with his many meetings, but also to ensure he has reflection time and can focus on what is important to his project.

Reading business related material

Reading improves all areas of a language, including vocabulary, grammar, spelling and writing. The more you read the more input the brain gets about how the language works.  Context helps you figure out meaning and repetition of vocabulary helps you remember the words.  If you don’t want to read long articles or blogs you can always download Twitter and subscribe to news or anything of interest to get your 15 minutes of reading practice a day. Our blog is a great place to start so bookmark it and there are plenty of online magazines and newspapers which are free.

The single most important thing though is to .. do something regularly.

Making a difference in meetings – 6 approaches for introverts to be heard

You’re too quiet”, “you need to be more involved in our meetings and discussions” and “people who matter are getting the wrong impression of you because you aren’t forward enough “.  This is the feedback Sven, a high-potential from a German automotive company, shared with me during a management training program. Sven was clearly able and bright – but he was a classic “introvert”. The idea of extraversion–introversion is a core dimension in most personality trait models, including the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. Sven is reflective rather than outgoing, and prefers working alone to working in groups.  Sven wanted to think before he talked, as opposed to talking to think. However, his natural introversion was getting in the way of his career opportunities.  Sven wanted to know “What can I do to be more involved in meetings … without having to be a different person?”
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Always prepare before the meeting

If you don’t have the agenda then get hold of one. If the organizer hasn’t prepared an agenda then ask them what they want to get from the meeting and which questions do they want to discuss Who is going to be there? Why have they been invited? Who will assume which roles? Get your thoughts together ahead of time. Write down questions, concerns and points you want to share. Turn up with a couple of clear points you want to contribute. This preparation means that you can …

Speak up early on

If you know what the meeting is about you can and should get actively involved as quickly as possible. Get your thoughts on the table as quickly as you can. This means that you will feel part of the meeting from the start, others will see you as involved and you’ll notice people connecting, challenging, or building on your contributions. And if your meeting quickly goes into an unexpected direction …

Take control if you aren’t ready to speak

When somebody wants to pull you in to the meeting and you feel you aren’t ready then actively control this. You have the right to take a little more time. Try expressions like:

  • “I’d like to think this through fully first before I answer”
  • “I’m thinking this through and would like a little more time”
  • “I’d like to let this settle and think it over. Can I get back to you this afternoon?”

Be aware that there is a danger of over-thinking too, and you may find the meeting has moved on too fast. With this in mind …

Accept that sometimes you need to just speak

If you aren’t fully ready to speak but feel you can’t ask for time try expressions like …

  • “I’m just thinking out loud now …”
  • “My first thought is …”
  • “This isn’t a fully-formed suggestion but how about …”
  • “Ideally I’d like to think this over some more , but my initial impression is ..”

And you don’t always need to have original ideas. If you’re not at your best try to …

Play to your strengths and leverage your listening skills

Many introverts are considered good listeners. You haven’t been talking that much and you’ve probably heard things that others haven’t (as they’ve been busy talking). This means you can …

  • “If I can just reflect back what I’ve heard so far …”
  • “What I’ve heard is … “
  • “I heard Olaf mention XXX, but then everybody kept moving on. I’d like to go back and ask …”
  • “I think we’ve missed something here ..”
  • “There seems to be a lot of focus on XX, but nobody has thought about YYY”
  • “If I can play devil’s advocate for a moment ..”

Accept and embrace that you can’t be perfect (all the time)

Nobody wants to come across as stupid or incompetent. But if you aren’t visible be aware that people may quickly see you as “the assistant”, or “the doer but not the thinker”.  Everybody has said things that have been wrong, incomplete, or poorly thought through. And vulnerability is  important for building trust. We trust people who are human and fallible. Be open to risking sharing ideas and thoughts and try expressions like …

  • “This idea isn’t fully formed but maybe you can help me …”
  • “I’m concerned I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here so let me just check ..”
  • “I know I’m missing something but here’s where I am so far ..”

And finally…

If the English is an issue then consider getting some targeted training. By doing the above you’ll quickly begin to be seen as playing an active role, and be viewed as a contributor. You can also expect to grow in confidence over time as you see strategies working and people reacting to you differently.


Why, statistically speaking, your emails probably aren’t as clear as you think they are

At the time of writing this blog it’s estimated that 269 billion mails are sent a day. Once we’ve cut out all the spam (say 50%) that is still an awful lot of communication. But how effective is email as a communication tool really? Put simply – it depends. If a mail is well-written, for example using the SUGAR approach, email can be an effective way of communicating information and sharing ideas. However, where email begins to struggle is when it includes or conveys an emotion. And we’re not talking about BIG EMOTIONS – most of us are aware sending emails when tired, upset, angry etc isn’t a good idea. Email communication also struggles when we try to convey much subtler emotions – irony, sarcasm, satisfaction etc.

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Why do we struggle to communicate emotions through email?

In our conversations, we convey emotion through both words AND paralinguistic cues (body language, facial movements, expressions, gestures, emphasis, tone, intonation etc). In fact it gets more complicated as sometime the absence of an expected paralinguistic cue is what conveys the emotion, or a shared context, for example when expressing irony or sarcasm.

When it comes to email we try to convey emotion through word choice, sentence structures and – whether you like them or not –  visuals such as emojis (yes, they are now common even in business).  However, scientific research shows that we tend to consistently overestimate our email writing skills.

Why writing an email is particularly different

Communicating in writing isn’t new – but the ubiquity and pervasiveness of email is!  Writing and physically posting letters meant that, to a greater extent, we planned and considered what we wrote and how we wrote it.  Nobody posted a 3 line letter.  Today, the speed and convenience of email means that we too often just type and send. This brings with it a whole new set of behaviours, and because it is so much a part of modern communication we don’t take time to evaluate how we use it or look to sharpen our writing skills

Research on how we don’t communicate as well as we think we do via email

There’s plenty of research from social psychologists into how we communicate by email. One interesting piece of research shows that the limitations of email are often underappreciated when it comes to communicating an intended emotion  – and that when we are writing an email we consistently overestimate how well our reader will understand what we are saying.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kruger, Epley, Parker and Zhi-Wen Ng, ran a series of studies comparing how well an email writer evaluated their email with the reader.

  • In one study 97% of the authors expected the serious and half-sarcastic sentences in their email to be correctly decoded. The readers successfully decoded just 84%.
  • Another study compared overconfidence when communicating with their voice versus overconfidence when communicating via email. When communicating with their voice 77.9% believed their tone would be understood – whereas it was in fact 73.1% . A noticeable gap BUT significantly better than the email results where 78% believe their tone would be understood whereas it was actually just 56%!
  • But it’s different when you are writing to a colleague who knows you well, right? Perhaps not – a third study looked at overconfidence when communicating with strangers versus friends. Surprisingly, the results suggested that familiarity does not translate into communication accuracy.
  • And finally, yet another study demonstrated how email writer are consistently overconfident in their ability to be funny in an email!

Why are we so convinced our emails are easy to decode?

It’s easy to lay the blame with the reader. Maybe they read the mail too quickly, or skimmed it on their phone as they were walking to their next meeting.  Maybe their language skills aren’t strong enough and they need to improve their business English. And dare we say it, perhaps they are just too dim to understand our well-crafted emails!

In fact, it often comes down to our being egocentric. Studies such as Elizabeth Newton’s “tapping study” , where participants were asked to tap the rhythm of a well-known song they were listening to  – and then estimate whether another listener would guess the song by their (clearly skilful) tapping (50% vs 3%), show how easily we convince ourselves that our reality is obvious. They also shine a light on how difficult we find it to imagine the perspective of somebody else (e.g. “I clearly meant it to be ironic – how could they not get that!?!”).

So what can you do to help your readers interpret your emails correctly?

Here are three things you can keep in mind for the future:

  1. Before you hit send reread your email with your “ambiguity radar” on.  If something could be read in different ways then rewrite it, clarify it – or just delete it.
  2. If the mail does have an emotional component, leave it alone for thirty minutes and then reread with a fresh set of eyes.
  3. If something is a joke, use emojis.

And finally, if you’re not sure, use the phone.



Negotiations in English – tips and phrases (for beginners)

Working within a central purchasing and logistics business unit, negotiation is a word that one cannot escape. Most of my participants have dealings with suppliers within Germany, though some negotiate with suppliers worldwide. Negotiation skills are a key part of the on-the-job training and support that I deliver. In this post, I’ve collected some basic negotiating “musts” that I use in my training.

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Preparation is the first key factor for all negotiations. In order for you negotiation meeting to be a success you must have clear goals in mind, acceptable alternatives and possible solutions, what you’re willing to trade, and finally what your bottom line is- where you are not prepared to budge. In “negotiations-speak”: You need to know your BATNA.

Start positive

Highlight all the positive goals both parties want to achieve for the day to reduce any tense atmosphere and break the ice with some healthy small talk.

  • Our aim today is to agree on a fair price that suits both parties.
  • I’d like to outline our aims and objectives…
  • How do our objectives compare to yours?

Effective questioning

Ask open ended questions in order to establish what the other party wants. Use questions to dig deeper, to uncover needs, to reveal alternative options, etc.

  • Could you be more specific?
  • How far are you willing to compromise?
  • Where does your information come from?


When your counterpart makes an acceptable suggestion or proposal you can agree to show enthusiasm and highlight how you are mutually benefiting from something. Revealing your stance will also help come to a favourable negotiation.

  • That seems like a fair suggestion.
  • I couldn’t agree more.
  • I’m happy with that.


Disagreements are a normal and positive part of building a relationship and coming to an agreement, they show transparency. It is always a good idea to anticipate possible disagreements before going into a negotiation meeting.  However, disagreements should not come across threatening but instead should be mitigated and polite.

  • I take your point, however…
  • I’m afraid we have some reservation on that point…
  • I would prefer …


In order to avoid any misunderstandings especially in an environment where English is the lingua franca, it is fundamental to be clear about your goals but also ask for clarification when something isn’t clear to you.

  • If I understand correctly, what you’re saying is …
  • I’m not sure I understand your position on…
  • What do you mean by … ?


Compromising is often required at times during a negotiation, and the way you do it is often an indicator of the importance of some of the negotiation terms. Remember, when you do compromise consider getting something for giving.

  • In exchange for….would you agree on..?
  • We might be able to work on…
  • We are ready to accept your offer; however, there would be one condition.


This is the moment to debate price, conditions or a transaction where one must be firm, ambitious and ready to justify their offers.  In this stage you can employ hard ball tactics or a softly softly approach, either way being prepared with a strategy will take you to the winning road.

  • I’m afraid we can only go as low as…
  • From where we stand an acceptable price would be…
  • Our absolute bottom line is …


There are key moments when summarising will take place during a negotiation; concluding discussion points, rounds of bargaining and the final commitment.  This stage is also the moment of agreeing on the next steps and it is vital not to leave anything unsaid.

  • Let’s look at the points we agree on…
  • Shall we sum up the main points?
  • This is where we currently stand …

Of course…

There’s a lot more to negotiating. Sometimes not saying anything is a valuable approach, while creating and claiming value is also a must. Feel free to contact us if you’re interested in learning more about what we can do for you/your team. Or keep an eye on this blog, for more negotiation tips and phrases.

I’ll leave you with another great piece of free content: 1001 Meetings phrases.

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Are language tests really the best way to assess your employees business English skills?

When a department manager asks us to “test their employee’s business English” there are typically 2 reasons – they want to know if somebody is suitable for a specific job, or they are looking for evidence that somebody has improved their business English. In both cases we fully understand the need for the information – and we often find ourselves challenging the idea of a “test”. HR & L&D, line managers, business English providers, teachers and participants are all familiar with the idea of tests – we’ve all been doing them since we started school – but as a business tool they have clear limits. 

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Are language tests really the best fit for purpose when it comes to corporate English training?

At the heart of these limits is the question “does the test really reflect the purpose?”.  These limits were highlighted in a recent newspaper article “Difficulty of NHS language test ‘worsens nurse crisis’”. The article focuses on the shortage of nurses applying for work in the UK, and behind this shortage are 2 factors: firstly the inevitable (and avoidable) uncertainty created by Brexit, and secondly that qualified and university-educated nurses who are native English speakers from countries such as Australia and New Zealand are failing to pass the English language test the NHS uses. One of the nurses said:“After being schooled here in Australia my whole life, passing high school with very good scores, including English, then passing university and graduate studies with no issues in English writing – now to ‘fail’ IELTS [the English language test] is baffling.”

To be clear there is nothing wrong with the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) per se. It is one of the most robust English language tests available, and is a multi-purpose tool used for work, study and migration. The test has four elements: speaking, listening, reading and writing.  My question is “Is this really the best way to assess whether a nurse can do her job effectively in English?”

Design assessment approaches to be as close to your business reality as possible

We all want nurses who can speak, listen, read and write in the language of the country they are working in – but is a general off-the-shelf solution really the best way?  What does a nurse need to write?  Reports, notes, requests – yes …essays – no.  Yet that is what was being “tested”. One nurse with 11 years experience in mental health, intensive care, paediatrics, surgical procedures and orthopaedics commented: “The essay test was to discuss whether TV was good or bad for children. They’re looking for how you structure the essay … I wrote essays all the time when I was doing my bachelor of nursing. I didn’t think I’d have to do another one. I don’t even know why I failed.”

Jumping from nursing to our corporate clients, our InCorporate Trainers work in-house, training business English skills with managers in such diverse fields as software development, automotive manufacturing, oil and gas, logistics, purchasing etc etc . All these managers need to speak, read, write and listen and they need to do these within specific business-critical contexts such as meetings, negotiations, presentations, emails, reports etc. So how do we assess their skills? The key is in designing assessment approaches which are as close to their business reality as possible.

Using business specific can-do statements to assess what people can do in their jobs

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a scale indicating language competency. It offers an excellent start for all business English programs. BUT the CEFR does have 2 major drawbacks when it comes to business English:

  • The CEFR is not specifically focussed on business-related communication
  • The CEFR levels are broad, impacting their suitability for assessing the progress of professionals with limited training availability

In 2010, and in response to our client’s demand for a business-related focus, we developed a robust set of can-do statements. These statements focus on  specific business skills such as meetings, networking and socializing, presenting, working on the phone and in tele- and web-conferences. Rather than assessing a software developers writing skills by asking them to write an essay on whether TV is good or bad for kids we ask them to share actual samples – emails, functional specifications, bug reports etc.  They don’t lose time from the workplace and it allows us to look at what they can already do within a work context. The Business Can-do statements then provide a basis for assessing their overall skills.

This “work sample” approach can also be used when looking to measure the impact of training. Before and after examples of emails help a manager see what they are getting for their training investment and, in cooperation with works councils, many of our InCorporate Trainers use a portfolio approach where clients keep samples of what they are learning AND how this has transferred to their workplace.  This practical and easily understandable approach is highly appreciated by busy department heads.

To wrap up, I understand that the NHS relying on a reputable off-the-shelf solution like IELTS has clear attractions. However, if you are looking at assessing at a department level then consider other options.  And if you’d like support with that then contact us.


Meetings in English are fine but the coffee breaks are terrifying

Martin, an IT Project Manager, was getting ready for a meeting with his European counterparts to review his bank’s IT security. As ever he was very well prepared so I was a little surprised when he confessed to being nervous. However, it was not the meeting itself that was worrying him – it was the coffee and lunch breaks. His nerves were due to having to “small talk”. Small talk is an essential element of building relationships.  Yes, the meeting is all about dealing with business and discussing the items on the agenda but it’s in the breaks in between where the relationships are forged.
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Why do some people find small talk so hard?

When we run seminars on small talk and socializing in English we hear many reasons why people struggle when they have to make small talk. Some people don’t know what to say, some are afraid of saying the wrong thing, some don’t know how to start a conversation, some are scared that people will think they are boring, some people find small talk a waste of time…and the list goes on. All of these objections, and fears are magnified when we know we are going to have to do it in a foreign language.

You prepare for the meeting so prepare for the small talk!

If you are nervous or uncertain about what to say during the breaks – prepare for them. First of all identify topics that are safe and suitable for the event and the people attending.  Depending upon the culture you are speaking with “safe topics” may be different but in general you are on safe ground with the following:

  • The weather – The forecast says it’s going to rain for the next 2 days. What’s the weather like at this time of year in Cape Town?
  • The event itself – I particularly enjoyed this morning’s presentation on big data analytics. What did you think of it?
  • The venue – This is one of the best conference centres I’ve been to. What do you think of it?
  • Jobs – How long have you been working in data security?
  • Current affairs, but NOT politics – I see they’ve just started the latest trials on driverless cars. I’m not sure I’d want to travel in one. How do you feel about them?

Opening a conversations and keeping it flowing

If you are going to ask questions, when possible, ask open questions. An open question begins with a question word – what, why, where, when, how etc. and the person will have to answer with more than a simple yes/no answer. Open question elicits more information and helps the conversation to develop. Similarly if you are asked a question (closed or open), give additional information and finish with a question. This will keep the conversation flowing.

7 phrases for typical small talk situations

  • Hi, I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Helena Weber from IT support in Ludwigsburg.
  • I’m ready for a cup of coffee. Can I pour you one?
  • I believe the restaurant here is excellent. Have you eaten here before?
  • What did you do before you joined the product management team?
  • Where are you from?
  • Did you see the story on the news about…?
  • It’s a while since I last saw you. What’s new?

Don’t forget

Your counterparts may well be as nervous as you are and will welcome your initiative in starting and joining in conversation with them.  You could be taking the first steps in developing new personal and business relationships