Lyndon B. Johnson entered his presidency during an uncertain time. Beloved president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he was the vice president at the time.
To say that his introduction as the Commander in Chief was tumultuous is an understatement. Despite all of that, he won the next election by a landslide.
President Johnson was not a soft-spoken man. He used his domineering personality to press politicians for change. And he wasn’t above using force to get them to pass the laws he wanted.
His liberal views were the bane of conservatives around the country. But that didn’t stop his “Great Society” legislation. These bills expanded on various domestic policies like civil rights, Medicare, and “War on Poverty.”
However, it was his speech on the Voting Rights Act that stood out the most. Find out how this politician changed the views of a nation with his storytelling mastery.
Who Was Lyndon B. Johnson?
Lyndon B. Johnson, often referred to as LBJ, began his career as far from politics as you can get – he was a high school teacher.
The Texas-born educator taught young Mexican-Americans in his home state. This experience taught him compassion for people of other races.
In 1937, he entered politics by winning election to the House of Representatives. While he served briefly in the Navy during World War II, he spent the majority of his time in the House.
After six terms, he won a seat in the Senate. From there, he campaigned with John F. Kennedy and ultimately became Vice President.
Although LBJ is not without controversy, he’s most known for his “Great Society” legislation. These laws helped end discrimination, expanded civil rights and other public funding programs. He was also a huge supporter of gun control.
Most notably, he’s known for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The first helped ban racial discrimination in various places. And the other legislation forced states to allow African-Americans to vote.
As altruistic as his policies were, this President was not a soft-spoken man. He did not “speak softly and carry a big stick” as former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt advocated.
LBJ’s bullying and intimidation tactics were legendary and referred to as “the Johnson treatment.” This treatment started with an invasion of the target’s personal space. The president was by no means a small man, so this alone may be enough to persuade someone to his way of thinking.
But it didn’t stop there.
From that careful positioning, LBJ issued a stream of flattery, threats, and persuasion. It was so disorientating that often the target didn’t know how to counter.
This president was not afraid to use physical intimidation. But he also knew when to use flattery and persuasion to get what he wanted.
The trick was to know when each tactic was appropriate and how to wield it.
The Circumstances Surrounding the Speech
In March of 1965, a group of civil rights protestors marched towards Selma, Alabama. This group was part of a series of protests organised by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists.
Things didn’t go as planned when they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Alabama state troopers and vigilantes attacked them rather than letting them cross.
The protesters received beatings and had tear gas lobbed at them. A Unitarian Minister was also murdered during this attack.
A 15-minute film of the event aired on television. The public witnessed stark scenes of the attack without audio commentary.
This led to a public outcry for the travesty that took place. Thousands headed for Selma or demonstrated within their communities, calling for a voting rights act.
LBJ was pressured to get the Voting Rights Act through Congress following this event. But he was also concerned that it wouldn’t pass. You see, he pushed the Civil Rights Act through the year prior.
And he hoped that Congress was still willing to listen so soon after the last controversial bill.
The Techniques LBJ Used to Sway Congress
It takes a skilled person to pass not one but multiple legislation that could change the face of a nation. This president succeeded where some would not dare try. Take a look at the techniques he used to help shape a country:
#1 –The “Bully Pulpit” of the Presidency to Force People to Listen
First, LBJ wasn’t above using his presidency to force people to listen. Whether or not they agreed with his views, the American people tuned in. Even if it was merely out of curiosity.
#2 – Clear, Simple, and Direct Language
The president also understood the need for direct and straightforward language. He knew his ideas had to resonate with people from all walks of life. Not just the educated ones.
So, he appealed to the general public using language that everyone could understand. He understood the audience he addressed and spoke to them accordingly.
#3 – Repetition to Drive His Point Home
LBJ used repetition to drive his point home. He sprinkled stories and metaphors throughout his speech. But it always came back to his main point.
Repetition helped keep the audience on track with his main message. And it also helped reinforce the ideas he imparted.
#4 – Ethos and Pathos for Broad Appeal
Analogies and personal anecdotes added credibility to his speeches. He talked about growing up in Southern America and his understanding of the “foulness” of racial prejudice.
Furthermore, he told his audience that there is always room for change so that they could overcome racist views.
He furthered his pathos plea by mentioning “how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of society.” Furthermore, he mentioned that despite more than a hundred years since the end of slavery, people are still not free.
LBJ put himself in a relatable position to make a stronger connection with his audience.
He also described nationalistic stories to appeal to the patriotic public. He spoke of the founding of America to establish an emotional connection with his audience. The president also reminded the audience about the founding idea that “All men are created equal.”
He commented on the equality of men and made his audience question the validity of racial separation. When he brought up the suffering in Selma and the audience’s duty to God, he used pathos to appeal to the audience.
#5 – Parallelism Unites the Audience
Johnson also used a lot of parallelism in his speeches. Every time he said phrases like “there is no,” “let us each,” “we must not,” and “I want to be” he drove his point home.
He also set the tone with repeated language like “we” or “us” to give the audience the feeling that they were all in this together. And because they were all in this together, they agreed with his opinion.
#6 – Placed the Voting Rights Act in the Context of the Narrative
Johnson went back to his teaching roots and spoke about other historical events that made a significant impact on the nation. He brought up Lexington and Concord. And he even mentioned Appomattox.
These weren’t just geographical locations. They were the great staging ground where the nation fought for their founding principles. But LBJ didn’t simply stop there.
He placed Selma as the next step in the story of America:
“So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”
Everyone likes a good story. Better still when the story involves you.
There’s no better way to appeal to a listener’s emotions than suggest that their actions can further the story of a nation.
#7 Logos Appeal to the Audience
Was the notion of inequality unjust when it comes to the laws and constitution of the country? The president thought it was.
He thought that denying justice, equality, freedom and democracy because of race was un-American. He went as far as to admonish the audience by saying that it was unworthy of the “Greatest Nation on Earth.”
This ties into his original ideas. The Voting Rights Act is an expression of American Values. And granting them shouldn’t be up for debate.
Practise Makes Perfect Persuasion to Change a Nation
The 36th President of the United States made a very compelling argument that still rings true today. All men and women deserve to live with freedom, justice, equality, and democracy. Yet so many are still denied these fundamental human rights.
Lyndon B. Johnson was a master of persuasion. But he didn’t get there overnight. He was a career politician and made a study of persuasion tactics over the years.
In his case, practice definitely made perfect.
Take a page from this president’s book. You may not have a presidential pulpit to bully people into listening. But you do have a right to call people out on their wrongdoing and demand change.
Believe in yourself and your authority to enact change. And maybe you too can change the world for the better – one speech at a time.
If you’re interested in honing your mastery of storytelling, we can help! Contact the Speakers Institute…