Thinking about Style and Delivery—and Greta Thunberg

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about style and delivery. Listening to the President’s hour-long rambling, free-associating announcement of a “national emergency,” I wondered again how his style—bullying, belligerent, antagonistic, dogmatic, and clipped (he often speaks in tweets)—seems to appeal to so many people. And yet it clearly does appeal to many, who seem eager if not to be bullied then to be told what to think, do, and believe. Elsewhere I’ve analyzed passages of his speeches, which reveal that he speaks on about a third or fourth-grade level, using a limited vocabulary, relying on stoking fears of “others,” and using tropes like paralipsis or occultatio (saying what you intend to say by insisting you won’t say it).


It’s surely worth asking our students to carry out analyses of style and delivery (looking at not only the words, phrases, images, figures of speech, and so on, but at body language as well) both in order to sharpen their critical skills and to help them analyze their own styles and patterns of delivery. Many writing centers now even provide ways for students to get presentations video-taped so that they can analyze these performances, often with the help of a speaking/presenting consultant.


On a recent visit to Stockholm, I was reminded of a very different kind of style and delivery: that used by teenager Greta Thunberg in her call to arms against the deadly emissions that are affecting the environment. You have probably heard of Thunberg—a sixteen-year-old (who started her campaign two years ago) who leaves school every Friday in Stockholm to sit in front of the Swedish parliament, admonishing leaders to act.


Thunberg is sitting in this photo, but she is more often standing and delivering speeches that challenge those listening to her to act. Speaking softly and clearly, enunciating every word (and often speaking in her second or third language, English), she has a message that is anything but soft. Like America’s current president, she uses repetition—but not like a baseball bat and instead like a drumbeat that intensifies in urgency as she moves through her talk. Take a look, for instance, at a speech she delivered to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. (She got there after an arduous train trek since she refuses to use the emissions-heavy airlines, and she noted the hypocrisy of those who come in “private jets” to talk about what they are doing to reduce emissions.) You can find a transcript and watch clips of the speech here, but for now here is a brief excerpt of the beginning and end of her speech:

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire...

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want our hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.


There is much to talk about in her speech: the explicit, plain language that makes her message absolutely and unequivocally clear. The very short sentences (like the last one, “Because it is.”) offset by some as long as 40 words that help achieve a dynamic and steady rhythm. The use of direct address (“I want you to act.”). The stark contrast between ineffective, dithering “adults” and young people on a mission. And, again, the use of repetition, which she uses throughout but perhaps most notably in the last part of the speech: “I don’t want; I don’t want” followed by “I want,” “I want,” “I want,” “I want,” “I want.” Thunberg stands straight and tall before her audience, looking directly at them and speaking as if without notes. “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” Here her use of repetition is artful, expressive, intensifying with each clause. Soft spoken, steady, often understated—but carrying a big message.


Our students could learn a lot from watching one of Thunberg’s presentations and then studying the transcript with care. In an age of “optics,” when images reign supreme and sound bites dominate, she offers some of her own that are truly memorable.


I like to challenge students to take a subject they are passionate about and to prepare a brief oral presentation, using examples like this one from Thunberg (or other speakers) to inspire them to concentrate on style and delivery. Because they matter, perhaps more today than ever.


Image Credit: Photo by Leonhard Lenz [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.