• How-to
  • 7 min read

14 English Idioms To Communicate Like a Natural In The Workplace

It could be to seal a big business deal, make a good impression, prove your knowledge and ability, or simply make things more interesting around the office, but speaking with idioms is a natural and joyous use of the English language, showing fluency and personality in equal measure. But before we set the ball rolling, what’s an idiom?

An idiom is simply a set expression, whose individual words often do not relate to the true meaning. While raining cats and dogs may indicate a heavy rainstorm, we can assure you no pets were harmed in the creation and use of this popular idiom!

We are not speaking about technical language – or jargon if you will. Idioms are clear to all speakers in any context, and they are particularly likely to be found in an office environment, not to mention in interviews and press conferences, or cleverly harnessed in a particularly effective marketing campaign with a catchy slogan.

So, dive on into our list of some of the best-loved, and oft-quoted English idioms which cannot fail to hit the spot in the workplace, and beyond.

Classic workplace favorites

1) Get/Set the ball rolling

Obviously originating from some form of game, this is now a much-loved business idiom which means to start an activity. Every new project has a starting point, and someone who has to begin it, so this is quite literally the beginning of everything you ever do.

In use: “So I think we are all clear on what we need to do. Sally, if you can set the ball rolling by sending an email to get opinions on the subject.”

2) Take the bull by the horns

Not a nod to a traditional Spanish sport, or indeed a risky encounter, taking the bull by the horns is to take control of a situation, often by being decisive. So, don’t be a passive bystander, or watch meekly as your latest project struggles: take the bull by the horns and be the master of your own destiny.

In use: “No one was taking responsibility for the poor performance of the new product until John took the bull by the horns, took charge, and was able to lead the team to success.”

3) Ahead of the curve

A business that is ahead of the curve – a trendsetter if you will – is in a good place. More modern, more advanced, more successful! Similarly, your boss will be most appreciative if you remain ahead of the curve – up-to-date and innovative in everything you do. And a happy boss is a great boss!

In use: “You’ve all done a great job this year, but with increasing competition, we really need to stay ahead of the curve if we want the business to remain successful.”

4) On the back burner

And often used analogy in business is the juggler – a person who has many balls up in the air at the same time. Multi-tasking is an essential part of most jobs these days, but setting priorities is essential. If something becomes a priority, similarly another thing loses importance…for now.

That’s when you put it on the back burner. This idiomatic favorite comes straight out of the kitchen – putting the less important elements to the back of the stove where the heat is reduced. You can almost see it as you do it!

In use: “Thanks for all your work on the training programme but we have to put it on the back burner for now while we concentrate on our new product launch.”

5) Back to the drawing board

Sometimes things are not working out, and something needs to be rethought. That’s when you take things back to the drawing board: literally where many of the world’s greatest inventions began. But it doesn’t have to be a physical thing, you can take any idea back to the drawing board, or go back to square one, to start again on the road to success.

In use: “Unfortunately the new marketing campaign hasn’t been as successful as we would have hoped, so let’s go back to the drawing board, and I’d like some ideas on my desk by Monday.”

6) Think outside the box

Want to be the boss’s favorite? Want to show that you are as innovative as the best of them? Then climb outside the box most thoughts are born into and start thinking! No, not literally! Thinking outside the box means to develop ideas that are outside the norm: innovative and fresh. If you want to get ahead in the workplace, thinking outside the box is a great place to start.

In use: “Our new product needs to be something really special, so I want you all thinking outside the box on this one to come up with something truly memorable.”

Other idioms to help you make your mark (make a good impression!)

7) On the same page

This one’s got nothing to do with books and everything to do with being synchronized in your actions and thinking. Any effective team must be on the same page – success is hard to come by if not. So, make sure you are on the same page as other thriving businesspeople with this old favorite.

In use: “I hope by explaining this to you we can now be on the same page as we go forward.”

8) Up to speed

No one wants to be left behind, and in a fast-moving environment, staying up-to-date is no easy task. Fortunately, you can be up to speed with your business idioms by using this oft-used favourite. No getting left behind for you!

In use: “I want the report to bring me up to speed with all the most recent developments with the project.”

9) Touch base

We could produce a pretty detailed article with all the idioms that have found their way into modern parlance from the baseball field, and here’s another. It’s important to stay in contact and share information is any workplace, so touching base with colleagues is a must. So, don’t say you’ll speak on Wednesday, say you’ll touch base instead.

In use: “Let’s touch base on Wednesday and you can fill me in with developments.”

10) Hit the nail on the head

If you think hitting the nail on the head means identifying the correct thing, then you’d be spot on, which incidentally, has the same meaning. Of course, there are no tools required for this hugely popular idiom, but it’s a colorful phrase nonetheless.

In use: “When you said that we needed to invest more in staff training, you hit the nail on the head.”

11) Too many irons in the fire/bite off more than you can chew/juggling too many balls

Many idioms don’t make sense to a modern audience because the way we do things has changed – we have electricity to thank for a lot of that. So, having too many irons in the fire wouldn’t be a problem these days. But biting off more than you can chew (and hence swallow) or juggling so many balls that you are undoubtedly going to drop one or more? These idioms may have the same meaning, but only two of them would have a modern understanding. Yet our language so often reflects bygone days, so feel comfortable in using any one of these crowd favorites – in this case having a lot of irons in the fire can be a good thing!

In use: “It’s clear what went wrong: you had too many irons in the fire. If you had concentrated on just one or two important clients, you wouldn’t have lost all of them!”

12) Not up my alley/not my cup of tea

This pair of idioms, the first more frequently heard in the States, the second unsurprisingly favored by the British, is great because saying that you don’t like something can be so negative. Of course, in business, and beyond, sometimes you indeed have to let your feelings known, but done like this, you can make a negative situation so much less abrasive. So, if it’s not your cup of tea, or up your alley, let it be known like a native.

In use: “I appreciate all the hard work you have done but I guess this is just not up my alley. But I think with a few changes, it could be just what we are looking for.”

13) Cut to the chase

Pleasantries are always important, no one likes it when someone only talks shop (business, business, business!) But there are moments when the time is ripe to say what you really need to. No more talk for talking’s sake, let’s cut to the chase – the action! Unsurprisingly this well-loved idiom (particularly by impatient bosses) originated in the movie business – the chase being the action required to maintain interest. Yet from Hollywood to the boardroom, this is a colorful idiom that will get the conversation where it needs to be. You can get down to brass tacks too if you prefer – that takes you to the same place!

In use: “I have understood all that you have said up till now, but let’s cut to the chase. What do you really want?”

14) Face the music

Here’s one we hope you never need. As nice as it may sound, facing the music is not recommended, as it means you are accepting the blame for something that you may or may not have done. It’s the moment of truth when the boss reads you the riot act (a few more idioms for you right there), so it really is an idiom to use rather than experience if at all possible.

In use: “I have a meeting with the boss on Friday, I’m pretty sure I’ll be facing the music over that deal that I didn’t close.”

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