Persuasive Speaking Lessons from Greta Thunberg

Case studies provide accessible examples for teaching and learning. That’s why we analyze them in business and in business schools. However, useful case studies aren’t always formal articles in professional journals. Sometimes they’re right in front of you. One of the best recent case studies of persuasive public speaking is sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg first rose to fame after leading a school climate strike outside of the Swedish Parliament. Since then, she has received numerous awards and accolades, given a TEDx talk, and addressed the United Nations twice. The resulting “Greta Thunberg effect” has led to multi-city protests involving millions across the globe. In short, when Greta speaks, people listen and act.

And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? According to Forbes, we spend 80% of our day communicating. Most of that is an effort to get someone else to do something. Often with mixed results (how many times have you had to follow-up and explain what you really meant or add a missed detail?). The climate crisis is a complicated, divisive global issue. Yet, this sixteen-year-old has driven more awareness and action in a little over a year than other advocates and scientists have in decades.

What can we learn from her persuasive speaking skills?

Be Clear and Concise

Greta Thunberg’s recent speech to the United Nations Climate Action Summit currently has over 4 million views on YouTube. Why is it so watchable? It’s clear and concise.

We pick up a lot of bad habits as adults. When it comes to communication, we’re drawn to complexity. Big words make us sound smart. Long sentences full of big words reinforce this even further. We end up writing for our egos instead of writing for our audience’s comprehension.

Thunberg’s speech is only four minutes in length. Just under 500 words, many sentences are only 3–4 words long. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing.” This simple sentence structure pays off in clarity. It’s not hard to understand what she’s talking about.

As climate is scientific, many would pivot to hard facts and stats. Thunberg employs only two stats on cutting emissions. She focuses less on the impersonal numbers and more on the interpersonal argument—“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”

The Lesson: Simple words, simple sentences, simple arguments. Keep it simple for a clear and concise message that resonates with your audience and drives action.

Paint Pictures with Vivid Words

Just because Greta Thunberg uses short, simple sentences doesn’t mean her words lack meaning. In fact, the words she chooses paint vivid pictures.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.” Thunberg draws contrast and tension by acknowledging early on that she’s a kid. She shouldn’t be having to deal with a global epidemic. Noting that she should be in school “on the other side of the ocean” reinforces this by describing the great distance she’s traveled as a child might.

Thunberg also uses repetition in her word choice to drive home her main idea. “How dare you …?” she repeats four times throughout her short speech. When your big idea is dependent on the audience understanding the role that their inaction is having on generations of young people, you need to be clear on where that responsibility lies. Like any core idea or call to action, it’s worth repeating. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them.

The Lesson: Words matter. Strong word choices go hand in hand with being concise. Don’t simply edit to make something shorter. Look for stronger words that paint vivid pictures in the hearts and minds of your audience.

Open Strong, Finish Strong

“My message is that we’ll be watching you.” These vivid words open Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations. When I first watched the speech, I thought the video had somehow advanced to the end of her talk as that’s where one might expect to find a strident reminder like this. However, Thunberg uses it as a bold statement to capture her audience’s attention right off the bat.

Beyond climate science, Thunberg instinctively knows a thing or two about cognitive science as well. Specifically, the serial-position effect, which tells us that we tend to remember the first and last things we’re presented with best. Translated to the world of public speaking, this means it’s important to develop a solid opening and closing for your talk.

After informing the audience that young people will be watching them at the beginning, Thunberg returns to this idea for her closing. “Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.” While you could open with a bold idea, a statistic, or a story, Thunberg returns to the simple argument at the core of her speech.

The Lesson: To stand out to your audience, plan a bold opening that grabs attention early. Reinforce this in your big finish as well.

If you stop and think about it, it could seem unlikely to find a case study in effective communication from a teenager. (Parents can insert any number of jokes about teenagers and communication here.) Yet, in just over a year, her words have moved millions to action on an issue known for its glacial pace and significant obstacles.

Greta Thunberg did this by embracing simplicity and clarity in a way that often alludes complexity-loving adults. She did this by capturing attention early, painting pictures with vivid word choices throughout her concise speech, and closing with a call to action. Clear and simple. Bold and vivid. Reinforcing and resonant.

If a sixteen-year-old can communicate the dangers of the global climate crisis in just four minutes, what can you get done if you adopt these principles in your next persuasive speech?


Photo via Wikimedia Commons