Business English: The Difference between a Meeting, a Conference, and a Council

Recently a business English student of mine asked me a good question: she wanted to know the difference between three very common business English words: meeting, conference, and council. In this post, we’ll look at the similarities between these three words, as well as some important differences.

The word “meeting” can have the same meaning as conference or council. However, “meeting” is a much more general word, and refers anytime two or more people encounter each other. A meeting can be informal and unplanned. For instance, if you see your friend in public by chance, you can call that a meeting, but can’t call it a conference or council. But if you meet with co-workers by a scheduled event with a specific purpose, it can be called a meeting, a conference, or possibly a council

“Conference” and “council” have narrower definitions than “meeting.” A conference and council both must be planned. A conference can be between just two people or between many people. So if you and one co-worker meet alone in a scheduled meeting, it’s a conference. And if your office holds a regular meeting to discuss profits or other specific business concerns, that can also be called a conference.

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A council will usually involve more than two people, but there’s more to the special meaning of “council” than just that. “Council” has a narrower definition than either “meeting” or “conference.” A council is a meeting of people who are officially part of a decision-making group for a specific purpose. People on a council are managers and directors, with authority to do specific things.

Because a council is a gathering where everyone who attends has special authority, a group of people who have authority can also be called a council. “Council” is a noun that either refers to an event where policy is set, or a group of people who make company policy.

Since a council involves an official group of people who make important decisions, you’re much more likely to hear this term if you work at a large corporation, or work for a government agency. For instance Wal-Mart has 2.2 million employees, making it as big as a large city in terms of people, so Wal-Mart has councils, various groups of people who hold meetings to decide different types of company policy. Similarly, actual cities have councils. In English, the term “city council” refers both to meetings where city policies are voted on, and to the government officials who organize and supervise those meetings.

To summarize: a meeting happens anytime two or more people are together and interact. A conference occurs whenever two or more people get together and interact at a scheduled event for specific purposes. And a council is a scheduled gathering with more than two people in which very important decisions are made… or a council is a group of people who decide policy and make official decisions.


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