Performance Business English

Simply put, Performance Business English (PBE) works on improving the learner's Fluid Intelligence (FI) in a business English setting. FI is one's measurement of confidence and competence when facing somewhat unpredictable business situations. It is often called “thinking on your feet” or “saying the right things at the right time.” Nearly all of us have had life situations that, after the situation had passed, we realized we could have communicated our position better than we had. Learners of new languages are usually analyzing what they had said and how to say it better.

FI is both an innate characteristic of individuals, where some people are naturally better than others, as well as a skill that can be enhanced with practice.

Dr. Kirkwood likes to express PBE as PNM (presentations, negotiations, and meetings), but business writing, telephone skills, and small talk should be included in the realm of PBE.

The PBE Publisher

PBE publishers face the same forces as SBE publishers. They need to develop their product to be suitable to ELT teachers to get the sales volume to be profitable, but such lessons have insufficient business content. If these publishers try to venture into more relevant PBE topics, they run into the PBE teacher's “creative need” to develop their own material. So any PBE material coming from the mainstream ELT publishers is not likely going to be that great.

The best PBE publishers are probably those business publishers developing material for native English speakers on those business topics. There are all sorts of material for effective business writing, presentations, negotiations, motivation, etc. for native English speakers, and this can be transformed into great PBE classes.

The PBE Teacher

A good PBE teacher needs additional knowledge above GBE and a different kind of knowledge than SBE. But, for the most part, good BE teachers can attain this knowledge with a little self-study, a little real-life experience, and some common sense. The only exception to this rule is with teaching negotiation, a field where most PBE teachers should take formal courses in negotiations (especially going through a few simulations) to really lead learners through a great negotiation activity.

But perhaps more importantly, the PBE teacher must also have sufficient fluid intelligence to create and manage those dynamic learning experiences because the PBE classroom is relatively unstructured compared to GBE and SBE. Each PBE classroom should follow a different path to its own final destination. So PBE teachers need to know where they want to start but also to be both flexible and sensitive to where the learners are taking the classroom activities. This means PBE teachers have to be better classroom managers than GBE and SBE teachers.

While the skill set is higher for PBE than GBE, most PBE teachers are still not getting significantly higher pay than GBE teachers. The same forces that determine the pay of mediocre SBE training—the additional skills are not that difficult to attain plus the creative nature of PBE leading to an oversupply of teachers—also determine the less-than-professional pay for PBE teachers.

The PBE Learner

PBE learners are a bit of a paradox. Unlike GBE and SBE, BE learners get only minimal benefit from their PBE lessons if they don't take a proactive role in classroom activities. Yet by being active, they expose themselves to show their FI levels to their English-learning colleagues and teacher. Some learners will not like their business abilities to be tested in such a public forum. Offending a few learners somewhat limits the quality of PBE.

PBE learners do buy into PBE training quite well when that training is directly related to the job they are doing. Call center employees, front line hotel and airline workers, and business proposal presenters will usually participate quite readily when a competent PBE teacher sets job-related challenges before them. In other words, if they see the immediate relevance of their English training to the job at hand, they value the opportunity for practicing English in their job. This leads us to an important point: most PBE training actually has a significant element of SBE. If we were to place most PBE training on the paradigm, it would be positioned in the middle and to the right as shown below:

In essence, most PBE training, where learners are really called into performing, would likely have a GBE/SBE/PBE rating of around 20/40/40.

The bottom right corner of the paradigm is where the training mostly becomes PBE. A good example is business negotiation classes in a classroom of learners with different business interests. It seems to make sense to have an expert in negotiations rather than a PBE teacher who has only read a few books on the topic. But most PBE dominated lessons, where the learners are called into significant and active classroom participation, require a reasonable component of SBE to be marketable. Again this means custom designing lessons for specific purposes with a dual focus of improving both academic and fluid intelligence. But generally speaking in the BE profession, there is little training done in the bottom right corner of the paradigm.


The following DVBE activities have a high PBE rating, all of which require a lot of business conversation. They are briefly described below.

RISK & REWARD: This is a fun business game where learner groups compete to see who can manage business risk better. The groups use their English abilities to compare investments, then reach a consensus.

GBE/SBE/PBE rating: 20/20/60

THE BILLIONAIRES: Learners practice reading legal text to determine which billionaire wins various corporate elections and eventually controls the world.

GBE/SBE/PBE rating: 30/10/60

THE TRACTOR DEAL: Learners are cast as tractor buyers or sellers. The focus of this lesson is to precisely communicate the many technical and business numbers required to finalize a transaction. The module is designed so that BE learners only need a little bit of knowledge about tractors to fulfill the objectives.

GBE/SBE/PBE rating: 30/10/60

COMPANY ARTICLES: Learners are cast as judges interpreting legal text to resolve a shareholder dispute.

GBE/SBE/PBE rating: 20/20/60

DELI CHICKENS (Part of The Grocery Store 2): Learners are cast as grocery store workers trying to anticipate daily chicken sales based on today's weather and previous buying trends. The focus is to get learners using English for data and graphs.

GBE/SBE/PBE rating: 30/10/60

SHIFT SCHEDULE (Part of The Grocery Store 2): Learners role play grocery store managers putting together a shift schedule while trying to balance union rules with the lowest possible payroll.

GBE/SBE/PBE rating: 30/10/60

It may be possible to raise the SBE component in these modules a little with the right audience, such as agriculturists or mechanical engineers for The Tractor Deal. But generally speaking, DVBE is not about raising academic intelligence or delivering a specific set of vocabulary and expressions useful to a specific business field. DVBE's focus is to give BE learners an unconventional English practice where they use their English abilities to analyze an unfamiliar challenge, and then resolve that challenge. The purpose of any language building activity in DVBE, whether SBE or GBE in nature, is only to supplement DVBE's core performance-based activities. In essence, DVBE has learners improving their fluid intelligence capacity in an English speaking environment. When DVBE gains some popularity and profitability, it will continue to develop modules with FI as being the primary focus.

NEXT: DVBE & The Paradigm

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