Connect, Grow, Thrive

Keeping your eye on the prize: Insights from Ian McMaster

David Kaufher

Can anyone teach Business English (BE), or is a background in business necessary? Why?

I certainly don’t think that anyone can teach Business English! Or, to be more precise, I don’t think that anyone can teach Business English well, which is, of course, the aim. 

To take a step back, maybe we should define what we mean by ‘business’ and ‘Business English’. For me, Business English is simply the English that people need to communicate well at work and therefore do their jobs effectively, regardless of what those jobs are, and regardless of what department, or industry, or area they are in. This is the definition that we use at Business Spotlight. And areas that are often called Technical English or Medical English or Financial English, as well as many areas of English for Specific Purposes, fall under our definition of Business English.

So, we’re talking about teaching people the language they need at work. And clearly, to be able to do that well, you need to be a good teacher first and foremost. This requires both experience and qualifications, as in any other responsible profession. I would also argue that it requires an interest in the world of work generally and a curiosity to find out what people need to do in their particular jobs. A background in the industry and/or department of the people you are teaching is an added bonus, but it is not essential in most cases.

What are the teaching tools or resources that you think BE teachers need to have now and in the future?

Business English teachers need knowledge of a wide range of teaching methods and techniques. But slavishly following any one particular methodology is unlikely to be in the best interests of the learners. Flexibility is the key to success, being able to adapt your approach when you see that you are not being effective. 

Ideally, Business English teachers need not only linguistic and pedagogical skills, but also business communication skills, intercultural skills, coaching skills, research skills, psychological skills, and much more. That’s why I always say that Business English teachers and trainers should be among the highest paid professionals. They are often dealing with critical business situations and require a wide range of technical and personal skills. The problem is that the market for Business English teaching is largely dysfunctional, with unqualified and under-qualified teachers undercutting the market in a way that you don’t see with lawyers, doctors, or IT specialists.

Many teachers stand by traditional grammar practice and vocabulary study as the most effective means for learning. But BE clients often prefer a communicative approach. How do you think the two approaches should be balanced?

In my experience, there are both teachers and learners who feel more comfortable with traditional forms of teaching and learning, even if these don’t necessary help them to achieve their aims. I think the important thing is to have an open discussion with learners about what the aims of your Business English teaching are. And the overriding aim should be to help your learners to do their jobs more effectively by communicating better in English. 

If you can agree on that as the goal for your teaching, then many other things will fall into place. Because to communicate effectively, your learners will need vocabulary, and they’ll need a good knowledge of grammar structures so that they are fluent. But they’ll not be learning grammar or vocabulary as ends in themselves, but as means to effective communication. This means the emphasis will be on using language to perform the tasks they need to do in English at work.

So, there is absolutely nothing wrong with grammar and vocabulary teaching. Indeed, it might be absolutely essential, depending on the learner’s existing level of English. But what Business English teachers need to be aware of at all times is what they are putting the emphasis on and why. Is it really effective to try to teach someone a particular grammar form for the 100th time when the first 99 times have failed to help them to perfect this form? Do learners really need to learn five more ways of saying the same thing — for example, asking a question — or ten more complicated words? Or would their time be better spent using the vocabulary they already have in various ways that they currently don’t do? 

For example?

We might think that being able to build trust is a very sophisticated skill. And in some ways it is. But you don’t necessarily need complicated language to do it. It isn’t difficult to say, “Here’s that report you asked me to complete by today” or “as promised, I finished all the paperwork yesterday”. Learners don’t always need more language; they often need to make more effective use of the language they already have.

It is also important for teachers to keep their eyes on the prize, and this is more effective communication and not linguistic perfection. We are not generally teaching people to be professors of English. Nor are we teaching them to imitate any particular model of English, native-speaker or otherwise. We are trying to help them to become clear, effective, and flexible communicators in as wide a range of situations as possible.

How can BE teachers promote learning outside the classroom, and how can learners effectively make and see progress in their English doing these things?

Again, I think this comes down to the discussion that you have with your learners, in particular about how the classroom time is simply one part of the whole learning process. It’s also important for learners to be realistic about how much time they are prepared to put into learning on their own. The ‘flipped-classroom’ idea, which involves learners doing their preparation before a topic is handled in the classroom, can also be a more effective and motivating use of learners’ time than the traditional ‘follow-up’ homework.

As for making and seeing progress, again I think it’s important to define what we mean by progress. This could be defined in the traditional language knowledge ways, with tests of vocabulary, grammar, phrases, etc. But with learners who are already in work, it makes more sense to measure progress in terms of how they are performing in their jobs. 

One tool for this involves what we could call a ‘learning cycle of self-reflection’. One of the problems for many Business English teachers is for legal and other reasons, they can’t actually observe their learners performing at work. So, unless we can get feedback from peers, bosses, or others present, we rely on students assessing their own performance. How did people react to them in a meeting when they offered help, or asked others what their goals for this particular meeting were? Or how did people react to their presentation when they stopped in the middle and asked if everything was clear so far?

A learning cycle of trying things out in English, observing how things go, reflecting on what goes well and what goes less well, and then adapting what you say and do next time can be a very powerful and motivating tool for learners. And naturally, you can act as a sounding board for them and discuss their self-reflection with them.

Often BE learners need soft skills, and want to know ‘how’ in addition to, or in lieu of  ‘what’. What challenges does this create for teachers and how can they best overcome them?

If your learners already recognise the importance of soft skills, then half the battle is won. Many people are too focused purely on the content of their message and on sending it out to others, and give very little thought to the impact of their message and how it is (or could be) received. Most of us also seriously underestimate the potential for misunderstanding, both when speaking and listening. So, again, you can have a conversation with your students about the importance of trying to minimise misunderstanding in communication, so that both their message and their motives are understood when they speak. (That is, unless they deliberately want to hide their motives, which in some cases might be necessary.)

The main challenge for teachers is to be acquainted with the issues relating to soft skills, such as the varying concepts of politeness or the use of body language – yet more areas for teachers to learn about, I know. And also, as I mentioned earlier, to encourage self-reflection and to try to get learners to understand the impact that their style of communication has on others — for example, through peer feedback or use of video. Much of the time, we communicate on auto-pilot, without really thinking about what we are doing or the impact we are having.

What are the BE skills of the 21st century? Are the traditional skills (socialising, meetings, presentations, telephoning...) still relevant? 

Well, all these areas can indeed be relevant, depending on the needs of your learners. In other words, it is essential to carry out a detailed needs analysis to discover what each particular learner, or group of learners, has to do in English at work, with whom, how often, to what level, etc. 

Over the past ten years or so, however, Business Spotlight— through our partnership with Bob Dignen and York Associates — has moved beyond these traditional ‘events’ to look at a range of generic skills that underlie effective communication in a wide range of business situations. These include things such as effective listening, clear speaking, networking, decision-making, dealing with conflict, giving and handling feedback, influencing others, and building trust. Earlier this year (2018), we also looked in Business Spotlight at the issue of truth in communication and at what a slippery concept that can be.

The area of intercultural communication has long moved away from simplistic discussions of individual national cultures and towards a discussion of generic intercultural skills that can be applied in a wide range of international situations. Business communication skills training needs to do the same, without neglecting the specific vocabulary and phrases needed in the sorts of situations mentioned in the question.

Do you see a recent shift in business topics? Are topics like green businesses, fair trade, or worker migration becoming more important?

All these topics — and many others — are fascinating and have received more attention in the business world in recent years. And these topics may indeed form the basis for interesting lessons and discussions in some cases. But the key question for Business English teachers is not just whether such topics are interesting — to the teacher and/or the learners — but whether they are relevant to somebody’s work. I have made the mistake myself in the past of thinking that a particular current topic would be of great interest to my learners and they didn’t want or need to talk about it at all. 

Basically, this comes back to the issue of needs analysis: finding out what your learners really need to do in English, who do they need to communicate with, which channels of communication do they need to use, and what do they need to communicate about. Business English teachers should certainly try to keep up with current events and industry developments. But we need to be careful not to assume that we know what will be relevant to learners — and, in particular, not to foist our own hobby horses on them.


Ian McMaster is the editor-in-chief of the bi-monthly business communication magazine, Business Spotlight (, and a former coordinator of IATEFL-BESIG.

David Kaufher is a freelance English trainer and IELTS expert with the British Council in Bern. He is on the ETAS Journal Editorial Board and also organises the teachers’ group, ELT Springboard. In his spare time he enjoys running, music, and discovering Switzerland with his wife and three daughters.