Idioms in a Business Context Outline Keys to Success

Leaning to use idioms is key to speaking clearly and effectively

Businessman talks to another man

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Here's a story about an accomplished businessman who happily gave advice to young people whom he mentored. Let's call him John. In his conversations he frequently used idioms to get his points across clearly and effectively.

You'll find numerous idioms in this story, which summarizes John's advice for success, followed by explanations of the idioms and a short quiz using some of them. Try reading the story once to understand the gist without consulting the idiom definitions. On your second reading, use the definitions to help you understand these idioms.

Keys to Success

John is an accomplished, successful businessman who is quite popular as a mentor. He enjoys showing young professionals the ropes. The first thing he says is that his career has not always been smooth sailing. In fact, he learned a number of lessons along the way. "First and foremost," John said, "don't believe that success is ever manna from heaven." He has met many people with similar rags-to-riches stories and learned that a lot of hard work went into their success.

John believes in hard work but also in recognizing the right opportunities:

"It's absolutely essential to never spread yourself too thin. If you have too many irons in the fire, you'll certainly miss out on real opportunity. I've seen people as busy as a bee who never really seem to do anything."

You'll probably agree that it's impossible to really concentrate if you have to worry about 50 different things. Another good lesson is that it's important to know which side your bread is buttered on and to give that activity your full attention. In other words, you need to ride the gravy train. Don't start looking for new challenges if everything is working out for the best.

The most important ability of any successful entrepreneur, John stressed, is to have the presence of mind not to simply take advantage of an opportunity but also to keep your eye on the ball. Some people are quick on the uptake, but then they get bored. It's important to be consistent and not spread yourself too thin. Finally, make sure never to show your hand to your opponents.

That's how to be successful, according to John.


Here are some of the idioms used in the story:

Smooth sailing: An easy life with no problems

Know which side your bread is buttered on: Understand what is most important to you

Ride the gravy train: Make money by doing something that has already proved to be successful

Keep your eye on the ball: Concentrate on what's important

Manna from heaven: Surprise riches

From rags to riches: Going from poor to rich

Show someone the ropes: Explain and show by example how something is done properly

As busy as a bee: Very busy (also as busy as a beaver)

Work out for the best: End with the best possible result

Quick on the uptake: Understand very quickly

Have the presence of mind to do something: Be aware and be able to grasp an opportunity

Show your hand: Show others the advantages you have in a situation

Spread yourself too thin: Doing too many things at once

Have too many irons in the fire: Doing too many things at the same time


Test yourself on your understanding of a few of these idioms:

  1. My friend is as ________________ these days. He never gets time to relax.
  2. We've been lucky in life. It's been _____________ since the very beginning. 
  3. I'm sure the situation will improve. It will _________________.
  4. Alan accidentally ___________________ during the negotiations for his business deal.
  5. Franklin went from ________________ in his life. He started with nothing and ended up a very wealthy person.
  6. Some artists are lucky and have a huge hit early in life. Then they ______________________ for many years afterward.
  7. My boss _______________________ at work because it was my first week.


  1. busy as a bee
  2. smooth sailing
  3. work out for the best
  4. showed his hand
  5. rags to riches
  6. ride the gravy train
  7. showed me the ropes

More Idioms in Context

You can learn more idiomatic expressions by reading these idioms in context with quizzes.

It's important to learn and use idioms in context, but idioms aren't always easy to understand. Some idiom and expression resources can help with definitions, but reading them in stories can provide context that makes them come alive. 

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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "Idioms in a Business Context Outline Keys to Success." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Beare, Kenneth. (2020, August 27). Idioms in a Business Context Outline Keys to Success. Retrieved from Beare, Kenneth. "Idioms in a Business Context Outline Keys to Success." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).