If you are looking to persuade people online, a simple linguistic trick can help – use the present tense.
Researchers from the University of Toronto found that Amazon reviews written in the present tense – such as 'I am doing', rather than 'I did' – were significantly more persuasive in large-scale tests with volunteer readers.
So for example, from these three reviews – 'I was thrilled when I put on this shirt!', 'I will definitely wear this shirt a lot!' and 'I love wearing this shirt' – the third is the most persuasive.
The researchers said it was because the present tense makes a message seem more specific and concrete, which helps audiences better visualise its meaning and feel psychologically closer to the author.
Sam Maglio, co-author of the study and professor of marketing and psychology at University of Toronto Scarborough, said: "The more vivid something is, the more real and true it seems.
"The past and the future aren't as vivid as the present. In the present tense, you as the reader take a journey with the speaker and you become immersed.
"We are experiencing it together."
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How did the researchers uncover this?
Maglio and his co-researchers dissected millions of Amazon reviews for products in categories from fashion and beauty to video games to automotive.
They determined the number of past, present and future verbs in each review and recorded how many upvotes they received (conveniently, Amazon's upvote button just reads: "Helpful").
The researchers found that with every increase in present tense, helpfulness ratings rose considerably, and with every increase in past or future tense, they dropped.
When Maglio and Fang brought in hundreds of participants to rate reviews, the same pattern emerged.
What else can the present tense help with?
The researchers showed about 400 people a pitch asking for donations to a charity that was written in past, present or future tense, and told them they were entered in a lottery with a $50 payout.
When asked what percentage of their winnings they'd give to the charity, the study participants donated about 28% when the proposal was written in future or past tenses.
With just a few words switched to present, the figure jumped to about 38% (the researchers then actually donated those percentages to the non-profit Helping Hands).
What else can help you communicate?
The study joins a growing body of research that finds communicating about the world in concrete ways makes us seem more believable to audiences.
Using "the active voice" (i.e. 'I ate’ rather than 'It was eaten') has become a ubiquitous piece of writing advice.
Maglio hopes the present tense will one day become common knowledge.
"People might not even notice the difference between these verb tenses, but it doesn't mean that they're not impacting how we think," he said. "The secret ingredient to helpfulness is being immersed – and the present tense makes the reader more immersed.
"If you want to be persuasive, write in the present tense."