Want to be more persuasive? Use present tense
TORONTO – Tuesday, March 28, 2023 – People and organizations share information every day. Journalists tell stories about important recent events. Marketers tell consumers about their product’s accolades. Consumers talk to each other about movies they hated and vacations they loved. When considering such information, both speakers and audiences tend to focus on the things that are talked about (nouns), and how those things are described (adjectives). But another aspect of language receives less overt attention: verb tense.
New research reveals that while people often describe events and experiences using past tense (e.g., “That movie had great acting”), sharing the same information using the present tense (“That movie has great acting”) can make the writer or speaker seem more certain, and as a result, more persuasive.
The findings are contained in the article “How Verb Tense Shapes Persuasion”, forthcoming at the Journal of Consumer Research. The article was written by Grant Packard, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University, along with Reihane Boghrati at Arizona State University and Jonah Berger at The Wharton School.
“People can talk about past events using either past or present tense, and they may not think about it much either way,” said Packard. “One could say a political candidate they saw interviewed on TV ‘seemed’ or ‘seems’ to make some good arguments, for example, while a car brand can advertise that it ‘was voted’ or ‘is’ Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. But tense can subtly signal something quite important,” Packard continued.
Experiences and events, by definition, occur in the past. But when someone says, “That book had a great plot,” it may subtly emphasize that the plot was good when they read it. Because experience is necessarily subjective, using past tense highlights that the information may be specific to the person sharing it. In contrast, saying “That book has a great plot” might suggest something more generalizable or universal. Specifically, present tense could seem to imply that the plot’s greatness might be true across people or over time (even though the book’s plot and the person talking about it are the same either way).
Packard and his colleagues first examined this possibility in over 500,000 online reviews of things like books, music, electronics, and restaurants. Natural language processing of the review texts revealed that present tense reviews seemed more helpful and useful, regardless of whether they were things usually consumed just or once or twice (books) or repeatedly over time (e.g., music).
Next, a series of experiments tested present (vs. past) tense’s effect in a carefully controlled manner across a variety of different statements and contexts. The experiments found that the same information shared in present tense seemed more helpful and was also more persuasive. Additional experiments confirmed why verb tense has this effect. Present tense is more persuasive because the information and speaker seem more certain, and the information seems truer across people and time.
“Present tense suggests not just that a writer or speaker has an opinion, but that they’re certain about it, and that it may be more likely to apply to the audience as well,” said Packard.
Grant Packard is available for interviews about this research. You can access a free copy of the article, “How Verb Tense Shapes Persuasion”, at https://www.grantpackard.com/papers.