3 public speaking lessons from Julia Child

Every episode of “The French Chef” is a recipe for public speaking.

Julia Child’s lectern was a kitchen island, and she had a television crew at her feet while she spoke. Because her show, “The French Chef,” was a public television show on a tight budget, she was encouraged to talk and not stop—if possible—to avoid racking up overtime charges.

And while speaking for nearly half an hour, she had to make a classic French dish from scratch, explaining clearly how you could make the same dish in your kitchen. You should try it sometime.

Anyone whose public speaking consists of training, teaching or lecturing would do well to study Child’s first and most famous television series, “The French Chef.” Launched in 1963, it revolutionized how Americans cooked at home, created a new vision of what public television could be, and stands as a great example of instructional speaking.

“I won’t do anything unless I’m told why I’m doing it,” Child told Terry Gross in an interview. “So I felt that we needed fuller explanations so that if you followed one of those recipes, it should turn out exactly right.”

She became the model to follow, and while today food television has its own channel, Child was a pioneer in teaching cooking on television.

Watch any episode of “The French Chef” and consider it a recipe for public speaking. The episodes mix clear explanations and definitions with a dash of humor, and a flurry of demonstrations with props (e.g. kitchen tools and food).

In this episode, Child shows and tells us how to make a quiche lorraine from scratch. “I’ll give full details as we go along,” she reassures her viewers. And she does.

Watch Quiche Lorraine on PBS. See more from The French Chef.

Here’s what you can learn about public speaking from Julia Child:

1. Musicality helps you vocalize and emphasize points.

Much has been made—and made funny—about Child’s voice. But if you listen to her, its musicality shines through. It’s a quality that helps her vocalize better. She emphasizes particular words with different tones and rhythms.

In an instructional show that conveyed hundreds of facts and nuances, that vocal variety helped her to hold viewers’ attention and direct them to what was most important.

2. Enthusiasm carries the instruction.

Audiences loved watching Child cook—whether live or on television—primarily because her enjoyment and enthusiasm were evident as she worked. If she loved a dish, ingredient, or particular kitchen tool, you knew it.

Too often speakers who train or teach forget they can captivate audiences with their enthusiasm. Here, it’s a vital ingredient in Child’s success as a speaker.

3. Descriptions and details can help your viewers “see.”

Shut your eyes and listen to Child walk you through the recipe. You’ll be able to see it in your mind’s eye because she’s so deft at creating what I call “invisible visuals.” They make her instructions easier to remember. This is another key ingredient when you speak to instruct an audience.

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She also writes The Eloquent Woman blog, where a version of this article originally ran.

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