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The Power of the Present is in the Tense

3 min read

Anytime a speaker authentically and congruently “lives” an emotion, the audience takes a journey down the same emotional path. This happens more easily and naturally when the speaker is using present tense.

As an Ariel Group facilitator who often leads storytelling workshops for business executives, I’m invariably asked about the use of present tense. Is it better to tell a live story in the present tense or the past tense? Experience proves repeatedly that telling a story in present tense, whenever possible, more effectively engages your audience. Present tense accomplishes this in three notable ways: it engages listeners mentally, emotionally, and physically.

(1) Mental.

Because present tense is typically associated with storytelling, its use instantly cues the audience that it’s “story time.” Attention is aroused. Present tense carries an immediacy that sparks a listener’s mental alertness and imagination. The audience quickly “jumps into the scene” and starts mentally scanning for relatable elements, such as sensory details—how do things look, smell, sound, taste, and feel? The listener also recalls thoughts he or she had when in similar situations. This takes the listener more deeply into the imagined action.

(2) Emotional.

Present tense is more vivid than past tense, so it triggers stronger emotional responses. Part of this is because when we, as speakers, shift into present tense, we immediately become more animated, engaged, and emotionally expressive ourselves. This, in turn, triggers more vivid emotions in our listeners. If we tell our audience, for example, in a hushed and fearful tone, “I hear a knock at the door. I look at the clock. It’s three a.m.,” the audience members experience the fearful, suspenseful emotions as their own.

Anytime a speaker authentically and congruently “lives” an emotion, the audience takes a journey down the same emotional path. This happens more easily and naturally when the speaker is using present tense.

(3) Physical.

Present tense also puts the listener’s brain and body directly into the action. Thanks to a process known as neural coupling, a listener’s brain responds to present-tense story details as if the listener him- or herself were directly experiencing the scene. This can produce actual physical sensations as well as strong physical memories. Present tense, as a grammatical device, recreates the past in the listener’s current reality by triggering muscle memory. Specific muscle groups are stimulated, causing them to expand and contract. When the storyteller says, “I am running down the hill” in an out-of-breath voice, using gestures congruent with the language, listeners connect to their own most relatable memory of running or of similar physical exertion, and relive the physical sensations of that moment.

Present tense also invites us, as storytellers, to become more physically involved in the action. As we physically act out a scene, fully or partially, we sharpen our connection with both the story material and the audience. Even voice alone can accomplish some of this. For instance, if we quicken our speech as we describe an experience, we may notice a quickening in our own heart response. This impacts our breathing and creates a sense of physical and emotional urgency, which, in turn, amps up the audience’s physical energy.

As our listeners become more engaged on all three levels—mental, emotional, and physical—their energy comes back to us, creating the kind of magical feedback loop that makes live performance so enthralling.

I always keep “present tense” in the front of my storytelling tool-belt and use it often. In one classic example of present-tense storytelling in the classroom, I recall sharing a story of being attacked by an animal. The climactic moment triggered a surprise shriek from several audience members. This, in turn, shocked the other participants into their own delayed vocal reactions.

I knew I had their full attention!


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