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When you give praise to a speaker in German because they either spoke without notes at all or largely independently from their notes (e.g. by looking up, not sounding as if they were reading out, adding spontaneous comments etc.) you would say that they "frei sprechen" (frei = freely). I have heard that "speak freely" means something different, namely "frankly, openly" etc, and that "speak without notes" is the correct translation of "frei sprechen". But what about speakers who do use notecards, yet not excessively so (as described above). Is there a way to express that more concisely than "She spoke independently from her notes"?

Edit: Thank you so much everybody for your considerate and detailed answers! Perhaps I should have mentioned that I was referring not to a political speech but to a talk given by a student in secondary school. The audience are encouraged to give feedback according to certain criteria, and one of them is that they, well, "frei sprechen". Now you guys have given me lots of phrases to choose from. Thanks again!!

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    The meaning is literal - to speak without using written notes. You can use this. It makes sense. Not sure it would be perecieved as a compliment though - perhaps "to speak well without notes" would work. You are correct that to "speak freely" does mean to speak frankly, openly, honestly - this would appear to be a false friend with the German term.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 19, 2023 at 17:46
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    I wonder if reading a speech directly from a written page is more common in Germany than in the United States or other English-speaking countries. To me (from the US), delivering a speech "frei," without looking at notes very much, seems like the usual way of doing things, and if I saw someone delivering a speech by reading it from a script, I would find that to be kind of unusual. Jun 20, 2023 at 3:01
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    @TannerSwett - you may have perhaps just never noticed this, but many politicians and public speakers do in fact use an autocue - either just off to the side of the camera view, or built into the camera itself.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 20, 2023 at 15:12
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    @TannerSwett No worries. Politicians know how to hide the truth. It's what they do. LOL;)
    – Billy Kerr
    Jun 20, 2023 at 15:49
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    @BillyKerr On the other hand, if you go to conferences and hear papers being presented, it is in my experience absolutely the case that you will frequently see Germans – as well as Spanish people, Italians and perhaps others – read their entire paper word-by-word from a piece of paper, often without even looking up at the audience. This is very rare in British and American speakers. So there is some degree of a culture-based difference. (This includes presentations in the speaker’s native language, so it’s not just insecurity in presenting in a foreign language.) Jun 21, 2023 at 13:12

9 Answers 9

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While I don't think there's an idiom specifically for speaking with notes but largely independent of them, it would sound natural to compliment them for the ways that doing so improved their speech. For example:

Your speech flowed really well! You sounded confident and prepared.

Even though "confident and prepared" might mean any number of things, if someone brought notecards and mostly didn't use them, they'd likely interpret it in the way "frei sprechen" would be, since someone who's "speaking freely" doesn't have to slow down to read or look downward and away from the audience, and can speak with more character and visible confidence.

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    This does not answer the question.
    – Lambie
    Jun 21, 2023 at 17:04
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    @Lambie It answers the question in the question body, the question in the title seems unrelated Jun 21, 2023 at 17:51
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    Don't let Lambie get you down, their comments tend to be very negative even though they give good answers. Jun 21, 2023 at 22:45
  • @ Radvylf You are absolutely right, I don't seem to have summarized my question in the title. Upon reflection, that happened because I was unsure whether "speak without notes" was maybe generally taken to mean "speak without using detailed notes" but in the course of typing out the question I got carried away into explaining what else I had thought about...
    – wgtwob
    Jun 23, 2023 at 15:37
  • @wgtwob No worries, that happens a lot. Also, you can edit the title, if you think you'd be able to summarize it better Jun 23, 2023 at 15:49
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As a native speaker (Manchester, North England) with a reasonable bit of public speaking experience, I actually think it would be best to avoid trying this compliment altogether.

"Off the cuff" has been suggested but that has the wrong meaning. Giving presentations without notes requires both deep knowledge of the subject and, usually, some genuine preparation. By using this phrase, you actually diminish that preparation.

Another phrase you might actually hear used, not yet mentioned, is "well rehearsed" because, well, that's exactly what happened, right? Except, this usually is associated with excuses or reporting bad news. You might use this term to berate a politician for giving a generic answer to a difficult question, for example.

If I'm about to give a presentation that I haven't really prepared for, I might say "I'll just wing it" and it would be fine to make a jokey comment afterwards about how well it went (or didn't), because I stated it up front.

If you just want to describe the situation of someone speaking without prompts (not as compliments, specifically) you could say:

  1. They ad-libbed it
  2. They delivered the presentation on the fly or, much less commonly, on the hoof

I think it's best just to compliment the presentation itself, as others have said, because any wording specifically about not needing notes has a good chance of coming across as patronising or demeaning.


You since edited your question to suggest that you're talking about a school setting. In this case, it's perfectly fine to make a comment about how someone was well-prepared to present without notes, in ways that other answers suggested. In some ways, that's kind of what would make it patronising if you were to try some compliment in a business/academic environment - people hone these skills at school and it's typically expected by the time you go into professional environments.

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  • While it's fine to deliver a presentation "on the fly," it would be preferred to deliver it on the whole pair of pants! Jun 21, 2023 at 18:38
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We would normally only mention notes or cards if they were not used, to praise someone for that. For example 'he spoke without notes'. If someone spoke mostly without notes, we could say that. If someone spoke without any preparation at all, we can say they spoke extemporaneously, or less formally 'off the cuff'.

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Another choice might be to compliment the speaker for “sounding natural.”

“Natural” is the opposite of sounding stilted or overly-rehearsed. If you tell a speaker that they “sounded really natural up there” then you’re telling them that they sounded relaxed, confident, and clear - prepared but not robotic.

Also, thanks for teaching us about this German phrase!

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There's no commonly understood idiomatic expression that indicates a compliment for speaking well without looking at notes.

The closest I can think of would be to say, "You spoke well, and you didn't even use your notes!"

This might be considered praise for someone in high school or younger, but any older than that, the normal expectation is speaking without appearing to read.

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As you suspect, the phrase "speak freely" means "speak frankly and openly," and the phrase "speak without notes" implies that the speaker didn't use any written materials at all.

But what about speakers who do use notecards, yet not excessively so (as described above). Is there a way to express that more concisely than "She spoke independently from her notes"?

The best way to say that that I can think of is, "She spoke without a script." That would imply that, although she may or may not have had some kind of written notes, she thought of the sentences as she was saying them, instead of reading the sentences from a written document.

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I would say that the speaker gave the speech or presentation "by memory" or "from memory".

Carol gave an excellent presentation and even delivered it almost entirely from memory.

or

It was obvious that Jerry was well prepared for his speech as he delivered it smoothly and by memory.

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Another, more formal, word for this is extemporaneous speech, or speaking extemporaneously. Merriam-Webster gives two different definitions for it:

composed, performed, or uttered on the spur of the moment : impromptu

carefully prepared but delivered without notes or text

The second is more what you’re looking for, but I think of the first as more correct, so this could be ambiguous.

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A possibility for an improvised speech is an off the cuff" address.

If you speak off the cuff, you say something without having prepared or thought about your words first.
I hadn't prepared a speech so I just said a few words off the cuff.

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  • Does this answer the question that was asked? The question asks about "speakers who do use notecards, yet not excessively so," and someone who speaks without having prepared certainly wouldn't have notecards available to use. Jun 20, 2023 at 2:56
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    As the definition states, "off the cuff" implies zero preparation. That's not a compliment; usually you would use this as something of an excuse if your words were (or potentially are going to be, in your next statements) clumsy. To me, it's idiomatic to praise spontaneous things e.g. wit - "that joke, right off the cuff, was exceptional!" - but for an actual presentation I had prepared well for, so as not to need notes, I would take "off the cuff" as quite insulting, actually.
    – roganjosh
    Jun 20, 2023 at 10:56

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