I was traveling last week, so I missed Greta Thunberg’s latest viral oratoral salvo—her speech last week at the Youth4Climate conference:
As a feller who has been reading corporate speeches since the mid-1990s, I must agree heartily with Greta’s thesis that most corporate climate talk is “blah, blah, blah.” Indeed, the most common type of corporate speech for all those three decades has been by an oil company CEO speaking earnestly about the need for to sensibly, gradually, responsibly, affordably integrate “alternative sources of energy.” All those years later, oil companies still produce mostly oil, and the most concrete change I can see is that they’ve convinced us to call them “energy companies,” instead.
But you read Writing Boots not for insights on climate policy, of which I have none.
So, communication: In 2019 I analyzed this viral Thunberg speech, at the UN Climate Action Summit.
Then, Greta appealed mostly as a tearful, angry girl, shouting environmental jargon and statistics. It was a polarizing performance, drawing great admiration from people who long for a charismatic environmental leader, of whatever age—and harsh criticism, some of it unspeakably so, from people on the other side of the issue.
Now, Greta is almost three years older and she’s adapting her rhetorical style—from a child seemingly overcome with emotion and outrage, to a supremely confident, apparently relentless world actor.
Her ability to change her style with her age so subtly and appropriately—and I’ll bet, consciously—should scare people who oppose her.
I’m reminded of a passage in my book, An Effort to Understand:
I once had a conversation with a middle-aged seventh-grade English teacher who told me he was in the process of taking on his third entirely separate persona at the school.
When he was in his twenties and early thirties, the students regarded him as a big brother, with whom they cooperated out of admiration.
Then one day in his mid-30s, he yelled at a class and saw to his surprise that they were terrified. “I realized they related to me as their father now,” he said.
And he had to modify his approach accordingly. And through his forties and early fifties he behaved as a father.
Then one day—and this had happened not long before he and I had this conversation—the teacher yelled at a class in his thunderous Dad voice, and detected pity on their faces. “Uh oh,” was how he read their look. “Gramps is losing it.” And so he knew he had to establish a wholly new basis of influence—an elder’s role.
Having shown her ability to modulate her rhetoric based on the changing nature of her ethos, it seems Greta Thunberg is going to be around for a very, very long time—and it to me seems we’re just beginning to see the extent of her powers.
As for CEOs and the people who write speeches for them on energy and climate and sustainability, they’d better up their game—(as I sense they’re beginning to do by making public government partnerships for realistic new climate policy).
Or as my colleague in the teaching of oratory Tim Pollard likes to say: “Buckle up, Buttercup.”