A new Schulich School of Business study reveals that while people often describe events and experiences using past tense, sharing the same information using the present tense 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 in the Journal of Consumer Research. The article was written by Grant Packard, associate professor of marketing at Schulich, along with Reihane Boghrati at Arizona State University and Jonah Berger at The Wharton School.
“People can talk about past events using past or present tense, and may not think about it much either way,” says Packard. “One could say a political candidate interviewed on TV ‘seemed’ or ‘seems’ to make 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.”
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 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.
“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.