Thinking back to Greta Thunberg’s one-person protest outside the Riksdagshuset parliament building in her native Sweden in August 2018, no one could have predicted her rise to international influence today – least of all Greta herself. Now she is among the world’s most prominent environmentalists, one of the first names that springs to mind on Earth Day.
While what Greta says regarding the destruction of our planet should be respected and engaged with by us all, this blog will delve into something that is especially unique about her – her communication style. There is much to be learned from a young girl who has struck fear into the hearts of government officials the world over since first making her mark at the age of 15.
Crucially, Greta has the skill to make clear and compelling arguments while tapping into her (and our!) emotions. The language she uses when attending debates and sessions that are otherwise dry and formal is often personal, and sometimes extreme. For instance, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”
Greta doesn’t pull her punches. In a recent verbal pummelling of parliamentarians, she said: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones.” Such statements have a raw power.
Why Greta speaks in this direct way could be attributed to several factors. One of these is her Asperger’s, which Greta has embraced as a positive difference, relishing wrongfooting her critics by describing it as a superpower. Of course, Greta is Swedish and it’s fair to say there’s a Scandinavian trait that combines directness with emotional reserve for great persuasiveness. Moreover, what really cuts through is her authenticity. Environmentalism is a topic that’s not just authentic to her but to a whole generation who will inherit the earth. Like many high impact figures, she’s not just remarkable in herself, but has captured the mood of a large group, becoming emblematic of it.
So, what can businesses learn from all this?
First, let’s consider what we can call ‘controlled passion’. Greta communicates directly, powerfully and emotionally yet without shedding a tear. Her exhortations and criticisms like “how dare you!” are imbued with passion and meaning. Yet she doesn’t appear physically perturbed by them.
If you watch Greta speak, she is very precise and surprisingly calm when delivering emotional statements. There’s certainly no fist-shaking or wailing at her audience, trying desperately to get them on board. Her controlled passion hits the sweet spot where emotions and well-constructed arguments meet.
Second, the potentially thorny matter of authenticity. In the age of ESG, businesses are talking about their environmental credentials as never before. As of course they should, given how they behave is fundamental to the future health of our plant. Where danger lies is in being inauthentic, and at worst greenwashing. There is no place for businesses that claim a passion for climate justice and assert they have always cared about the cause if their track record shows otherwise.
Organisations need to cut out some of the spin. Talk about what your business is really doing to tackle issues and alleviate problems, and do it authentically. Trust and believability matter and depend on words aligning with actions. On no account should corporate values be mere window-dressing.
This brings us neatly to the third important lesson businesses can learn from Greta: plain speaking. Too often, thought leadership pieces or expert commentaries are fluffed up and filled with confusing forms of expression. It’s commonplace to find relatively simple concepts and perspectives purposely distorted by convoluted jargon and an abundance of unnecessary terms that leave the reader feeling either ignorant or exasperated. Most likely, the reader will have given up long before the end.
There are far too many quotes misattributed to Einstein on the internet, but the great man really did say: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” In that vein, Greta knows what she is talking about and conveys her points with admirable clarity. Brands and businesses that understand their products, services and markets inside out really should be doing the same. Complicated ideas can be simplified, messages sharpened.
Greta has ruffled many feathers in the short time she has been in the public eye. Yet her honesty, passion and capacity to galvanise an audience while remaining controlled and focused has won her millions of admirers.
As businesspeople and communicators, we rightly take advice from and look for role models among those with many years of experience. But this Earth Day it’s worth bearing in mind that a young 18 year old woman from Stockholm has plenty to teach us too.