Audience Delivery News Speech Analysis

6 Powerful Speaking Lessons from Greta Thunberg’s UN Speech

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Her back story is a doozy. She’s a 16-year old from Sweden who is dedicating her life—or at the very least her childhood—to raising global awareness for climate change. She’s blunt, she’s angry, and she’s getting airtime and awards worldwide.

To arrive at the summit, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailboat powered by solar panels and underwater turbines. She’s an exceptional and gutsy young person. Put that aside. Those aren’t the reasons many of us had to catch our breath during her speech.

You felt something because she nailed her four-and-a-half minutes with a microphone. It was the words she said and how she said them. She was a masterful communicator and we can all learn from her. Here are a few takeaways…

The “You” Gut Punch. You become the target of her criticism. She said “you” nearly two dozen times in under 5 minutes. At some point, as an adult listener, that “you” stops being political leaders and other people over there—it starts becoming you and it hits closer to home. Are you really doing everything to help? Are you doing anything at all?

The Thoughtful Theme. You won’t soon forget being scolded repeatedly by a teenager. You’ll remember her repeating, “How dare you” as you consider your role in this mess. “How dare you look away?” “How dare you pretend?” That phrase is cutting, simple, and universal. It kind of hurt.

And just when you thought she’d lost all hope in you, she said, “If you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.” She didn’t come to mince words, but she knew that you don’t get people on your side by only demonizing them.

The Numbers. You heard scary numbers you can’t unhear. She used numbers to give her story teeth, but not too many to get lost in hard-to-understand climate data. The planet only has a certain amount of CO2 left to give and it’s running out quickly. You don’t have to be a scientist to get that.

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The Emotion. You experienced emotional contagion. She was visibly angry to the point of tears at several big moments. You felt her pain. Great speakers give audiences permission to feel something by showing the emotion themselves. She teared up, you teared up. She’s fired up, you’re fired up. You, the audience, are a mirror to a skilled speaker.

The Voice. You heard someone who could have read from her notes, with little inflection or vocal variation (the way most leaders do when reading from a teleprompter or script,) but you didn’t hear that. You heard someone who emphasized key words and phrases to drive her point home.

She hit the words when she said “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction” and “…A 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us.” A vocal change breaks up a speaker’s cadence, and it grabs the audience’s attention.

The Poise. You saw a level of poise that even top corporate leaders struggle to display. If you watched a video of the talk, you saw her hold eye contact with a group of adults as she warned them about the consequences of their inaction. That’s a breed of bravery that’s generally limited to online trolls, not in face-to-face interaction.

Notice she didn’t smile once? Even as people cheered and applauded from the audience. She fully embodied the seriousness she wanted to communicate.

Were there things she could have done better? Sure. No talk is perfect, but this one caught the attention of people all over the world. As communication enthusiasts, we had to take a closer look.

We’re excited for Greta and grateful to her for pushing us all to do more to protect our planet. She’s got Nobel prize in something written all over her. Her place in history will take shape as she gets more focused and more sophisticated in her language and her delivery. That’s going to be exciting to watch.

So here’s to Greta, for seizing the moment, with the guts of a thousand grown-ups.

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