Remember when your sixth-grade English teacher told you it was better to write your essay with active verbs? Well, she was onto something. Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger discusses his latest paper, “How Verb Tense Shapes Persuasion.” It was co-authored with Grant Packard, marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, and Reihane Boghrati, professor of information systems at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, and published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Is It Better to Write in Present Tense?
Angie Basiouny: I wanted to quote a sentence from your paper to get us started: “While almost everything consumers do involves language, researchers are only starting to examine how words shape attitudes and behavior.” Why did you want to study something as specific as verb tense?
Jonah Berger: We’re all writers. We may not write books or novels or plays, but we’re writing all the time. Every day we’re writing emails, PowerPoint presentations, and Word documents in a variety of contexts. How can we increase the impact of whatever we’re writing?
A few years ago we did a project examining this in the context of academic writing. Academics write papers, and while some are really impactful, others aren’t. Obviously, some of this is quality of the ideas they’re putting out there, but we wondered whether how ideas are presented might also shape their impact. So we analyzed thousands of academic articles, the number of citations they received, and whether writing shaped citations.
And it did. Better writing led papers to have more impact. But there was one thing in particular that was a little surprising to me, and that was the role of verb tense.
We can talk about things in the past tense or the present tense. We can say, “This book had a great plot,” or “This book has a great plot.” If someone asks you about a vacation that you took, you could say, “France was really fun,” or “France is really fun.” We often get a choice about whether we can use the past or the present tense — the study found, or the study finds, for example.
We found tense shaped a paper’s impact, so we started wondering whether this would generalize. Is there just something nuanced about academics and academic research, or might the way we use tense have an impact on communications more broadly? Might the tense we use when writing online reviews or sales pitches or ads shape how persuaded people are by our message?
How to Convince Someone by Changing Your Verb Tenses
Angie Basiouny: The key takeaway is that a simple shift in verb tense can make your message more effective. How does that one thing make a difference?
Berger: Let’s talk about past tense for a second. If someone said, “That book had a great plot,” “France was fun,” or “This product won an award,” it suggests that this particular person liked the book when they read it, or they enjoyed France wherever when they visited. And because experiences are naturally subjective, it also suggests that it was their experience. Not only is the experience in the past, but it was their personal experience.
When we use the present tense, though, we’re doing a little bit more generalizing. When we say, “France is fun,” it says not only was it fun when I went that particular time a few years ago, not only did I find it fun, but it suggests that everyone would find it fun whenever they went. It suggests it’s a more general idea. In some sense, it’s an assertion.
The same thing when we say, “The book is great. The book is interesting.” It suggests not just that it was when I read it, but it is and will be in the future. When we use the present tense, people go, “Wow, you’re willing to generalize beyond your own personal experience in the past, to generalize to people beyond yourself, and to what’s more likely to happen moving forward? Well, you must be more certain. You must be more confident.” If you’re willing to say not just that France was fun, but it is fun; not just that this book had a great plot, but it has a great plot; when you’re generalizing beyond the past, it suggests you’re more confident or certain about what you’re saying. As a result, people are more likely to follow up on your opinion and be persuaded.
Basiouny: It makes the audience feel included in your message.
Berger: A little bit, and it also makes you just seem more confident, right? If you’re willing to go beyond your experience and suggest something that others will experience as well, people think, “Well, it must be really good. You must be so confident about how good it is, how right it is, that I’ll be more likely to take that action.”
How Present Tense Impacts Behavior Beyond Marketing
Basiouny: How did you go about studying this?
Berger: We started with field data. We looked at thousands of online reviews about books. Imagine you go to Amazon.com and think about all the reviews there for a given book. We downloaded over 100,000 different reviews, controlling for all sorts of different things — which book it was for, and whether people liked the book or not, and what topics they talked about. We found that writing that review, the more sentences in that review that used present tense, the more useful people found it.
We thought that was pretty powerful. But we could say, “Well, maybe that’s just books.” Books are something maybe you consume in a certain way. So, we looked at music. Some of you might say, “Well, books are only something you read once, whereas music you consume more often. Maybe it wouldn’t hold for music.” Nope, same thing for music. We looked at over 100,000 music reviews. When reviews used present tense, other people found it more useful and were more persuaded by it.
You might say, “Well, that’s nice, but maybe it’s just enjoyable stuff like books and music. Maybe it wouldn’t matter in other more technical domains.” So we looked at consumer electronics — headphones, keyboards, other sorts of things. Same effect there. Maybe it’s just about products. Maybe it wouldn’t hold in services. So we went to Yelp and looked at restaurant reviews. Same thing there. Across all these different domains, across the different categories, writing in the present tense increased impact.
That was interesting, but we said, “Well, maybe you can’t be sure it’s causal. Maybe it’s just some sort of correlation.” So, we conducted some experiments. We took exactly the same thing, and for some people, we talked about it in the present tense, and other people, we talked about it in the past tense. And we found that even in that situation with tight control, present tense made it more persuasive. Even something like the results of a scientific study. This has a certain impact, versus had a certain impact. People think a drug is going to be more effective in the future. They’re more interested in adopting a weight loss plan when you use present tense, rather than past tense.
Basiouny: It seems the big message here is to use present verbs. Is it that simple? Is there something else you’re not telling us?
Berger: I think the best research takes something that’s big and important and shows that you can have an impact on it in a meaningful way, with something that’s not too difficult to do. I don’t mean to suggest that we can always talk about things in present tense. If someone asks you, “Did you study for the test?” If you studied, it’s in the past, so you can’t change that. The studying happened in the past.
But in many cases, we have a choice. If I’m an automobile manufacturer, for example, and my car was voted car of the year in a certain category, it also is car of the year currently. I have a choice. I can say it was voted car of the year, or that it is car of the year. I should probably say it is, because it’s going to be more persuasive.
If I’m a doctor talking to a patient, rather than saying it had a 90% success rate, saying it has a 90% success rate is going to make people think it’s more efficacious, and you’re going to make them more likely to do it. We can’t use this all the time in all cases, but this is a situation where subtle shifts in language can have an important impact on behavior.
Get Jonah Berger’s latest research-based book on language titled, Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way.