'Impassioned, authentic and raw': The keys to Greta Thunberg's success

Experts say the 16-year-old activist has been able to humanize the climate crisis as few else have.

Thunberg speaks at the Climate Action Summit on Monday. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Thunberg speaks at the Climate Action Summit on Monday. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

The rise and influence of the youth activist is not only a product of social media. The latest young person to command the international spotlight on a major societal issue is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, who delivered an impassioned 495-word speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City this week. 

"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," she told an audience that included world leaders such as President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as CEOs. "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Yet I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering." 

Not just a rallying cry, Thunberg’s words were a scathing condemnation of apathetic adults. That is what has made her, and young activists such as Parkland shooting survivors David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, so influential. They are angry, frustrated and not afraid to express that on behalf of their generation to the government and business leaders.

"She is using very specific language -- how grown-ups have ruined her childhood, that she can’t be in school and how dare they? -- making her speech personal and yet at the same time universal to her generation," says Jane Madden, managing partner of sustainability and social impact practice leader at Finn Partners. "She is angry, and she is demanding that adults take responsibility. 

"It is not charisma that makes her such a powerful voice and a good communicator," adds Madden. "It is the language she uses and her dynamism." 

That spark is resulting in significant media coverage. From roundups of her most famous lines to being characterized as a cross between do-gooder Lisa Simpson and Batman foe Bane, who is known as a master fighter and strategist, it’s no wonder the words "Greta Thunberg" are often preceded by "eco warrior." 

Experts say the authenticity of her frustration also resonates. Thunberg crossed paths with Trump at the U.N. and was caught on-camera giving him an icy stare. The moment quickly went viral on Twitter and spawned memorable memes

"It used to be if you spoke with that level of passion and urgency that we saw from Greta it was just too much and people would turn away," says Jonathan Rosen, principal at BerlinRosen. "I think that’s why people were initially dismissive of young activists in the Women’s March and the unflinching words of someone like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), but I think there is a generational shift happening in comms."

He adds that social media has amplified how people talk in real life and in their most unfiltered moments, something that Thunberg, Ocasio-Cortez and Trump have all used to their advantage. 

"Speaking from an emotionally real place is becoming the No. 1 essential thing to effective comms today," Rosen says. 

A symbol of frustration and change

Pundits have tried to discredit Thunberg by pointing to her having Asperger’s syndrome, which she says is her "superpower" that makes her so focused as an activist, or her naiveté being just a kid. With her petite size and signature braids, she looks even younger than her 16 years. 

Critics also say that children are being weaponized by parents and activists to push an alarmist agenda about climate change, or that kids don’t need to be missing school for Fridays for Future youth strikes, which Greta helps to organize and promote on Instagram and Twitter. She has a combined 9 million followers on the two platforms. 

However, more than a decade after the release of An Inconvenient Truth, experts say it’s a teenager who has finally been able to humanize the issue of climate change and make grownups snap to attention, hence some of the blowback. 

"Greta Thunberg has accomplished what decades of scientists waving charts and quoting statistics could not: she has humanized the climate crisis," says Michael Horn, chief data officer at Huge. "By reframing the debate from ‘parts per million’ and ‘degrees Celsius’ to ‘your children’s future is at stake,’ she has carved out an emotional territory which is deeply uncomfortable for adults to hear and even harder to ignore." 

"This is the way to reach beyond the choir of activists and resonate with the broader public, and finally overcome mass indifference on this issue," he says. 

Leave it to a young person to also use Trump’s sarcastic tweet, "[s]he seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!" against him. After the mention, Thunberg promptly changed her Twitter bio to read, "A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future." 

As for concerns about young people being used as propaganda, Grant Wenzlau, VP of story at Day One Agency, says Thunberg is "no more propaganda than any other public figure, whether they are a masculine bombastic figure or a 16-year-old Swedish girl. It is all symbols and communication." 

Especially on a global stage, he adds, where "people become archetypes: symbols that represent values. What she has come to represent: a frustrated generation in search of adults to partner with to make change." 

Wenzlau’s caveat is that he doesn’t know if Thurnberg has converted any non-believers, but he still thinks her activism is effective. 

"Greta’s raw anger came off not as chest-thumping, in the way many fiery politicians use the emotion. It was frustration paired with sadness but an intense desire for resolution and change. It made my hands shake and made me want to do something—if this 16-year-old can stand up to a room of grown-ups, I can do something."

Thunberg’s peers likely felt the same way. More than one communications executive notes that their kids came home after watching Thunberg’s speech at school feeling empowered, rather than anxious, and made their entire family watch the video. 

Ravi Sunnak, EVP of sustainable development goals at Porter Novelli, says Thunberg’s most valuable role is to keep the pressure on business leaders and lawmakers and "try to keep the pressure up and to create more change."

"Greta has arguably done more than any other voice out there to increase the visibility of the climate crisis and galvanize the support of an entire segment of the population: young people. She is ensuring climate dominates the headlines, social conversations and policy debate," says Sunnak. "She has achieved this because she is impassioned, authentic and raw."

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