Source of the following article Persuasive Litigator.

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

You know how the joke begins: “A guy walks into a bar…”  But wait, for you to know the punch line, this has to be past tense. So wouldn’t it be, “A guy walked into a bar…?” It could be. But usually it is “walks” – present tense. Why? Because the storytelling is a little more involving when it is delivered as if it is happening in the present moment. That is why storytellers, particularly those who are speaking rather than writing their stories, will often make use of the present tense. It makes the story more interesting to hear.

This use of the present tense applies in courtroom presentations as well. In describing a product development story, for example, it makes sense to tell the story in present tense: They look at the market…they design the product…they account for foreseeable misuse…they test it in over 300 scenarios…they monitor it once it is on the market…they continue to make changes. Of course, there are some legal settings where you need to be precise for a good reason, depositions for example, and in those settings, definitely use the correct tense. But when you lay out the story for a judge, juror, arbitrator, or mediator, and you want that story to be as vivid and as involving as it can be, then a preference for “is” over “was” carries some advantages. In this post, I will look at a few of the advantages of present tense.

I drew from a number of articles from sites devoted to writing, storytelling, and general style in English, sources like The Editor’s Blog, a discussion on “English Language and Usage” on a site called The Stack Exchangeand an article on Lifehacker entitled, “Use present tense to make your stories more engaging.” Some writers focused on the hyper-correct use of English certainly disagree with that, but there are some practical benefits. And this is one set of articles where the comments are nearly as good as the article content itself.

The advantages boil down to three points.

Present Tense is Novel

Most books and stories about the past will use past tense to make that time frame clear. But for that reason, the present tense can stand out. As the Editor’s Blog article points out, “Stories told using present-tense narration can be enticing because they’re different. Readers may also end up paying closer attention since the format is one unfamiliar to them. They may develop a deeper involvement in the story.” At the same time, the usage is not so novel that people fail to understand. As one commenter noted in the Stack Exchange article, it is common for people to slip into the present tense without thinking about it when telling a story, and that shift sounds natural to a listener. “So last night, I come home from work, and the first thing I see...” is not confusing to the listener because the context makes clear that the speaker is telling a story about the past.

Present Tense is Immediate

Why do people make that conversational shift described above? Probably because, implicitly at least, we want to make the story a little more dramatic. The present tense has the advantage of making the action immediate by describing it as if it is happening now and not in the past. My own belief is that this encourages greater visualization, prompting listeners to see it in their mind’s eye as it is told. In litigation, it also can be important to encourage fact-finders to take the perspective of your party, and the present tense can do that, placing listeners in the action rather than after the action, sharing the events through the narrator’s eyes.

Present Tense is Heightened

The present tense communicates that the storytelling in this context is special. Commenting on the Editor’s Blog piece, Edward Lindon notes, “The shift to present tense indicates heightened emotion on the part of the narrator. This is also supposed to be more emotive for the listener. It’s a normal and mostly unconscious part of spoken English.” The Lifehacker article shares an example from Kat Boogard, “Which one of these sounds more compelling: ‘A few years ago, I was walking on my college campus…’ or ‘It’s my sophomore year in college, and I’m walking from my afternoon class back to my dorm room…?’” In a legal context, there is another advantage to the use of present tense: It signals a shift from analysis to narration. It is a way of saying, “I’m putting the legal part on pause, and we are in the story now,” and that is a way of regaining and heightening attention.

Of course, legally you want to be clear and precise. You also want to be consistent. If you’re telling the story in present tense, tell the whole story in present tense, not shifting unless there is a good reason for wanting to do so (for example, post-injury, you might want to emphasize the past-tense part focusing on the client’s lost abilities). In most settings, however, when you want an immediate and involving story that can be viewed from the teller’s perspective, go for “is” over “was.”

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Other Posts on Storytelling: 

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Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited.