Influencing lessons from a child activist

“Child activists” are having more and more influence on important issues. What do they teach us about influence?

In late August 2018, a pigtailed schoolgirl sat down in protest at the entrance to the Swedish Parliament. She was Greta Thunberg (15) and her demand was simple: “reduce carbon emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Accords or I won’t go back to school”. Thunberg showed up every day for three weeks. Soon students from at least 270 cities in 12 countries were showing solidarity and Thunberg would speak at both TEDxStockholm and COP24 in December.

This week, (barely 4 months after her crusade began), Thunberg was the focal point of a Twitter melee over the World Economic Forum’s decision to give her a platform at Davos. The brawl was triggered by a fellow Swede environmentalist named Bjorn Lomborg who asked:

Source:  The Guardian

Though it was Twitter at its worst, the brawl did raise some interesting questions: Why is Thunberg getting noticed? Are policymakers really more likely to listen to her than to the likes of a 72-year-old Nobel laureate? Here are four things all aspiring influencers could learn from the young Swede:

The Power of fresh words

Mark Twain once said that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug”. Moreover, even the sharpest of carving knives get blunt with overuse. Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, reflecting on the COP 24 discussions, put it best when he said:

"It’s been almost 10 years and we are still using the same old, dinosaur language. Still saying the same old words. Still making the same tedious points"

Thunberg, on the other hand, brought not only a new vocabulary to Davos but a verbal style that was as biting as the European cold snap. Indeed, some of it seemed cannily crafted for an event that some critics described as “a fire safety convention attended by arsonists”.

"You adults keep saying you owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don't want your hope. I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to act like our house was on fire"

The Power of a thought experiment

A thought experiment offers your audience a temporary vacation from a limiting frame of reference. While risk free for your listener, it is nonetheless provocative. Thunberg’s called her listeners to imagine the world in the year 2078 (her 75th birthday): What sort of questions would her children be asking? What sort of answers could she hope to provide in light of present circumstances? The experiment’s power lay atop the gnawing fear that we probably don’t have that long. According to some scientists, we have no more than a 15 year window of action to avert a catastrophic environmental collapse by 2050. Thunberg’s sense of urgency and desperation was palpable:

“Imagine the year 2078. I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act”

The power of authenticity

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed” says US Navy Admiral William McRaven. “If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right”. The point? Words aren’t the only thing that influence. While many of the glitterati arrived at Davos in Gulfstreams, (according to a Swiss aviation website as many as 1500 private aircraft were there), Thunberg opted for a 32 hour train journey to get to Switzerland. Small action? Yes. Newsworthy? You bet! "I have stopped flying for climate reasons," she told a journalist adding that she had also convinced her parents to stop flying and to go vegan.

The Power of brevity

Thunberg’s groundbreaking address to COP24 was 3 minutes and 47 seconds while her TEDxStockholm appearance lasted a mere (but memorable) 11 minutes. Her sentences are short and biting. Her apparent lack of filters is, she concedes, a result of the Aspergers she suffers from. Words, sentences and pithy soundbites from one talk are repurposed for the next one. “The person and the simple message is the difference” said one voice of reason in Lomborg’s twitter brawl.

Where does that leave Lomborg’s comparison? Simple: it misses the point entirely. The point is that Thunberg and Nordhaus exercise very different forms of pressure. Influence, Aristotle reminds us, is a highly nuanced and creative discipline. Each influencer brings a complex and unique interplay of:

  • Ethos; your credibility with your subject matter.

  • Logos; your ability to rally data, stats and facts to make your point.

  • Pathos; your ability to inject emotional appeal to your narrative.

The Father of Rhetoric never meant it to be an exact science: context, audience and individual style all have a say in how the three ingredients are blended. For now, Thunberg seems to be relying heavily on Pathos which you’d expect from a child who’s watched her planet being torched by the older generation and who wants to live to be a grandma. As one person tweeted, “He (Nordhaus) may shuffle numbers around a spreadsheet, but she's the one that will have to live in the world Dr Nordhaus and such have left behind. Her plea is for her future”. Beyond her talks, Thunberg relies on other touch points to inject ethos and logos: in a Washington Post opinion piece, she and Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres called for bold and decisive action on “3 Big C’s” - coal, combustion engines and crop burning. It may not be crammed with jargon or high science but it seems a credible call to action nonetheless

Whatever work you do, chances are, you will all have our own “Davos Moment” this year. When you do, ask yourself these three simple questions: 1. How do you understand the context and the audience? 2. What is your unique influencing style? 3. How will you blend ethos, logos, and pathos to influence and persuade?

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