Greta Thunberg – ONU speech review

How Greta Thunberg has shown us you don’t need to have a strong voice to have a powerful one

Image from the YouTube video “Le discours de Greta Thunberg à l’ONU” by Le Monde

This week, a 4,5-minute speech by a teenager gave me goosebumps. Not because of its content alone (that’s not today’s topic), but because of its pure power in using all the right public speaking tools that made the message so clear, so evocative, and so impactful.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old climate activist from Sweden, delivered a largely viewed speech at the United Nations on Monday. She has been celebrated for her activism on climate change by many across the globe but has equally received heavy backlash and criticism from others through television and social media.

I, as a public speaking coach and pedagogical manager at Present Perfect, will not focus on political views of the speech. I will focus on everything that is public speaking; on how we can provide people with the best possible tools to effectively deliver their messages, create clear and powerful presentations, and how to use the right rhetoric to motivate and convince our audience.

Diving into the analysis of Greta Thunberg’s public speaking style has made it very hard to steer clear from reading various political agendas and (quite spiteful) commentaries, so I have done my very best to focus predominantly on her style as a public speaker and what worked well.

  1. The Voice

    What caught my attention with Greta Thunberg is that she has a very soft and quiet voice, which is often a catalyst for fear when it comes to public speaking for many. Phrases like “I don’t sound authoritative enough”, or “I can’t speak loud enough to be heard” are only a few of many I hear on a regular basis. Greta Thunberg might not have a deep strong baritone that projects authority, nor a mature husky voice that evokes trust; but what struck me most about that, is that she didn’t need any of this in order to get her message across!

    The use of intentional pauses and silences in her speech were extremely effective. By regularly taking deep breaths and allowing herself to slow things right down, she was able to remain focused on her key arguments which contributed to her message being clearly heard as well as evoking the exact emotional reactions she was looking for from her audience.

    Her intonation on the right words and syllables as well as her repetitive use of the phrase “how dare you” made this speech all the more impactful (in whichever way you want to view that impact).

  2. Rhetoric

    In public speaking, you ultimately have to lean on the art of persuasion. Incorporating Aristotle’s three rhetorical devises (ethos, pathos, and logos) and use these different tactics to effectively deliver a speech is a must to effectively impact your audiences.

    Greta Thunberg did an excellent job in applying all three of Aristotle’s approaches in her less than 5-minute speech. Her visibly emotional opening statement (pathos) had Greta express her frustration, with her voice wavering in ager as she said “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth”. We all heard critics called it ‘overdramatic’ and ‘a meltdown’ speech, I just think they’ve mistaken meltdown with showing the world and its leaders that she’s had enough! (and I think she did a great job! We all know that one remembers more the feelings, the emotions felt hearing a speech than the actual content of the speech – Just saying).

    With emotions running high during her speech, it didn’t stop her from grounding herself and her message with facts and statistics (logos) to back up her frustration and urgency to act. She did not only expect feelings alone to spark people to act (she knows her audience better than that), so she hit them with indisputable facts and logic, simply so, the science.

    Her credibility (or the ethos) was found in her youth. She spoke on behalf of the next generation who are going to end up dealing with the changes in climate (however dire you think they may or may not be) and who better to speak up for the younger generation than a teenager herself?

  3. Assertive Communication

    Greta Thunberg may be called many things by both her supporters and critics alike, but one thing no one should dispute is that her communication style is assertive. Her continuous use of “I’ statement in expressing her opinions has her take responsibility for her own emotions while she backs these up with facts to explain her message and be clearer in conveying what she wants and what she needs from others.

    She is very clear in the boundaries she has set for herself as a public speaker and her style shows there is no room for being manipulated. Just look at her mature and composed responses to a lot of the hate she has gotten after the UN speech (which is more than I can say for some of her ‘grown up’ haters).

    And last but not least, to come back to Ms. Thunberg’s softer voice and lower volume when speaking, her language remains descriptive with no room for misinterpretation of what she wants her audience to know and to take away from her message.

    All in all, here I give Greta Thunberg an enthusiastic two thumbs up for her style as a public speaker with her ability to deliver a clear message, using the right rhetoric, and making an impact (even with a smaller voice).

    Like Greta said so herself when this all started: “Sometimes a whisper is louder than shouting”.

Review by Stefanie, public speaking coach, and guardian of Present Perfect pedagogy.

To watch Greta’s speech  via Le Monde 👉🏻