At the age of just 16, Greta Thunberg is known all round the world as the face of the youth climate change movement. From her initial protests outside the Swedish parliament to being featured on the cover of Time magazine, there’s no doubt this young woman has made an enormous impact.
There are few individuals, let alone teenagers, who have ever managed to inspire so many, so deeply. Even fewer who have been able to amass such a following whilst dressing down world leaders. And precisely none has been diagnosed with Asperger's, OCD and selective mutism.
So how did Greta Thunberg become the leading voice on the climate crisis? And what can we learn from her communication style that has made her such an effective voice for the movement?
She is pure emotion
In Greta Thunberg’s address to UN leaders, there is no desire to please. Not at all. Instead of feeling flattered by being given an audience with world leaders, she almost scolds them for the fact that she is being forced into this position. “I shouldn’t be here,” she says, “I should be in school.”
It may be that her Asperger's has stripped away the mess of social cues and insecurities. She has become like a very clean lake, with no mixed motives or conflicting desires clouding her communication. She speaks and we see nothing but the message and her message is clear: the earth is being ransacked.
If you have a passion so pure, a drive and intention so uncontainable that you want to sob and scream, then if you can dare to articulate it - without dulling it so it becomes socially palatable - then you will find yourself on the world stage.
Her words have a clear purpose
Greta Thunberg has unbridled clarity of thought. Since she has no thought for what others think of her, her listeners feel her full focus of intention.
To me there are similarities to be drawn between Greta Thunberg and the early speeches of Barack Obama. He was almost unknown in politics, until he began articulating his unfiltered message of tearing down divides between Democrats and Republicans. While Greta’s Asperger's might shut her off from the opinions of others, Barack had his own background, that Michelle Obama describes in her book Becoming (which if you haven’t read, I absolutely recommend) when she says “he’d had hills, beaches and his own mind to keep him company.” He didn’t play to the political cues of the time, and his words chimed with clarity and focus. It wasn’t a Democrat vision, or a partisan one, it was his own - and one for all American people. He articulated a global vision that captured the imagination of millions around the world.
Greta doesn’t play any oratory games. Her words are simple and to the point. Her words cut to the core of her emotion. “How dare you?” she says of leaders who pin their hopes to the future generations. She begs them to understand the severity of the situation, refusing to believe they are choosing not to act. “That would make you evil. And I will not believe that.”
The greatest speakers are not only skilled, they are fervent. Because they believe something completely, they give their all to it - and you feel it in their words. We feel compelled to step in, to be a part of this something they ascribe so much value to.
She lets every word land
Watch Greta’s TEDx talk in Stockholm. Everything lands like a drop of water on a still lake. You can feel the ripples.
Her words are simple but desperately emotive.
There are some technical aspects that make it work too. A downward inflection. Intonation that drops into your soul. And then there’s the eye-contact.
Her eyes seek out the crowd, as if searching to find someone who understands, and to challenge everyone else. Her words seem to rise from deep within her, a penetrating questioning of the adults who should be wiser than her - “How could you?”
It’s so powerful for its simplicity. Appealing to archetype emotions that instinctively matter to us. The kind we are supposed to care about: shame, unfairness, betrayal, anger.
She describes her selective mutism, saying it means “we only speak when it is really necessary.”
Which says it all really. There are no wasted words.
Because of this, when she cites statistics - “Rich countries like Sweden need to reduce emissions by 15% every year. And that is so we can stay below a 2 degrees warming target” - which might be lost in the mouth of a politician, the audience instead feels the chill of emotion. The fear of how it will affect her generation.
Greta knows how to speak. Let’s hope that we know how to listen.
Emma Serlin is an entrepreneur, author, mother, businesswoman and the founder and director of London Speech Workshop. For further analysis of well-known figures and their public speaking styles, sign up to the regular LSW newsletter for more powerful communication tools.
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