The ABCs of Using Simpler Language

Celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was no doubt pleased with the New York Times’ two-star review of his latest New York restaurant, abc cocina, on July 31. But whoever wrote the description on the restaurant’s website may have cringed, since food critic Pete Wells questioned key passages. The review serves as a reminder why concise wording usually makes better business sense.


Here’s the abc cocina website content that Wells parsed:

abc cocina & michelin star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten welcome you to our modern global exchange celebrating local craft and international culture, a fusion of tradition and innovation uniting yesterday and tomorrow. Experience the vision of abc home curation, a romantic and mystical atmosphere and succumb to a dynamic love affair with an eclectic and enchanting cuisine.

Here are excerpts from Wells’ reaction to that description:

“If that gives you a vivid picture of what’s in store for you at this three-month-old establishment, stop reading and use the free time that now stretches out before you to do something nice for a stranger. If, on the other hand, you found a few passages somewhat hazy, I’ll be happy to do my job.”

“This “modern global exchange” is what we critics like to call a “restaurant.” “International culture” must refer to the menu. I could see how it might be romantic and mystical if you are sexually attracted to gelatinous sea creatures. As for “dynamic love affair,” you are going to have to ask Google. I have absolutely no idea.”

Writing in a “can you top this?” style isn’t unique to the restaurant industry. Overuse of buzzwords also appears to be the rise, and we see frequent evidence across categories, from media to design to travel. Yet clear, simple language is preferred for these five reasons:

1. As noted above, lofty language can leave your product or service open to being critiqued. Unless your topic is amusing or you want your brand to be mocked by late night comics, use plainer prose. Wikipedia also alerts readers to entries that make overt sales pitches.

2. It takes too much time for consumers to figure out complicated wording. In the headline, Wells referred to “deciphering” the restaurant. Plus most people have shorter attention spans these days and are often multi-tasking.

3. Complex language too often overstates what your product or service has to offer. More realistic prose helps to manage buyer expectations, better ensures delivery of what you’re promising and tends to lead to longer term customer relationships.

4. Not all your prospects have a strong command of English, and many may be visiting from other countries. For example, the upcoming U.S. Open tennis tournament draws scores of international fans. Some may not fully or quickly understand what you’re trying to convey.

5. Photos and videos can fill in the extra details and website visitors can preview for themselves what you’re claiming to provide. So going all-out on the description is less necessary.

The competition is fierce among restaurants, as in many other industries. So finding the right balance of ingredients to attract customers is critical. While the New York Times parsing may have gone overboard, the restaurant has been receiving positive press, and recent business remains brisk. (image shown here courtesy of abc cocina website).

We’d still recommend reading and saving the review as a cautionary tale. It may come in handy the next time you’re writing press releases, website or Wikipedia content.