Five IELTS speaking tips no one has probably told you about

I got 8.5 for my speaking in all three IELTS tests I’ve taken. Sounds like a bragger I know. You’re probably rolling your eyes reading that. Me too actually. Cz honestly there’s nothing to be proud of. It’s just an overpriced test to prove that you’re linguistically-imperialized sufficiently. Nothing to be proud of, yet *high pitch singing voice* here I am writing a collection of tips on how to score 8.5. Oh, the irony.

OK so what do I have to offer? There are plenty of IELTS resources already. Yes, dully noted. So here is how I’m going to frame the argument. This is based on my first-hand experience. This is not from a point of view of a teacher or an examiner, but a test-taker. The examples I put forward here are from the tests I took in 2013, 2017 and 2018. Oh, wait why would anyone take the test three times with two being taken in two consecutive years? In this era of digital judgment, let me set the record straight that I’m not an IELTS maniac. One was for the master’s degree; the second was required by my former employer; and the last was, a story for another day, a free test from Australia Awards.

Now let’s get to work. What do I do to score 8.5? Simple things really. But a little caveat would be this works only if you’re English is already at least upper-intermediate. You would probably score 7.0 or 7.5 already ‘cz this is not a magic trick or anything. This is a little reminder that speaking test is not just verbal, but also a non-verbal communication. Impression matters. Confidence is important. Vibes play a role too.

So how does anyone make impressions in IELTS speaking? Or any interview-format speaking tests really. Here are five things you need to know if you want to leverage your score. Your IELTS teacher might not tell you this ‘cz pretty sure they’ll be busy talking about the format, grammar, lexical resource and all the basics. If you’ve got the hang of it already, here is what you might want to try:

Tip number 1: Small talk

After the written parts, you’ll be waiting for your turn for the speaking bit. There will be some sort of waiting room where you’ll be picked up by an examiner. You’ll then follow them to a smaller room where the speaking test takes place. I know most people will be nervous and things but try to relax. This is just a test, not the end of the world. If you see it from a less threatening view, the examiner will probably look just like you. A person. A person to converse with. And just like in any normal conversation, you can make small talk. You know basa-basi. Use the how-are-you sequence at the very least.

In 2013, I said the standard “Pleased to meet you. How do you do?” In 2017, when I got called “Anisa?” I said, “That’d be me” I stood up and as we were walking to the classroom I asked, “How’s the lunch?” That’s because the examiner excused himself for lunch when it was supposed to be my turn. Poor chap. The lady in the room probably didn’t realize that it was time for his break. The man had to excuse himself and I had to wait. So “How’s the lunch?” was something I really had to come up with. In 2018, I actually rose and said “Oooh I’m glad the wait is over” with a tone of something between sassiness and total boredom. Not sure if the examiner was impressed or offended. Either way though, I began communication before the test started. Chop chop let’s talk.

I’m not saying that you have to be sassy. That’d be me. I was just being myself. And you can be you. Business-like, charming, confident, cheerful, elegant, whatever works for you really. Make small talk the way you usually do. Cz these people will have been talking with test-takers the whole afternoon. When it comes to your turn, you can you know, be more humane? Maybe that’ll make the speaking test less boring. For them I mean. And maybe that’s how you make an impression.

Tip number 2: The non-verbal communication

See the thing is, teachers always talk about lexical resource, grammar, pronunciation. I bet no one reminds you that every face-to-face conversation, is also a non-verbal communication. The way you carry yourself, the way you sit, the way you shake hands, the way you dress, your gestures, eye contact, your facial expression, your tone and intonation. These all are communication already.

Especially in speaking part 2, where you have to do the monologue. Use the intonation. Watch Hermione Granger in the few first Harry Potter installments. It’s leviOsa not LevioSA. Speak like this. Oh, not actually like this, but somewhere along the line. Speak with expressions.

In the most recent test, the topic was “Your most favourite season” Honest to God that’s the silliest question cz we only have two seasons here: hot and very hot. But anyway, I described rainy season, something like “I like it because when the storm is raging outside *hand wiping an imaginary window* I get the sense of ultimate comfort by staying indoor looking out of the window *turning to the examiner* It’s a beautiful feeling and then I can have like a *hands holding an imaginary cup* hot chocolate and banana fritter, sitting in a couch with my mother talking about the rising prices of chilies and shallots in traditional markets”

You get the idea.

Tip number 3: Spicing it up just enough

One problem with students is that they’re so innocent that they could not even come up with any exaggeration. They always come up with some very basic answers, like I don’t usually celebrate my birthday, I did nothing in my holiday, I stay at home at the weekends, I usually sleep. Tell you what: no one knows anything about you. So, if say that you play futsal in your free time instead of getting wasted, no one will ever know. Not that I’m teaching you to lie, or maybe I am? Oops. Pretend that you’re not reading that. What I’m trying to say is: spice it up just a little, just for the sake of the conversation.

Like in the 2013 test, my topic was “The most interesting person you’ve ever met” I talked about this musician I met on the train on the way back from Jogja. It was based on a real person, the story. But then I added some spices to make it sound more interesting ‘cz honestly my life was not all sugar and honey and I didn’t get to meet interesting people that much so a remixed story it is then. Like the musician plays all sort of instruments (true), went to Art Institute (still true), writes love songs from the point of view of a damsel in distress (somewhat true). All very helplessly romantic and relatable to young girls (departing to the land of imagination). She’s also very charming and eloquent and she writes lyrics in English (pure imagination) and there, my friend, was when I started to depart completely from reality and began describing Taylor Swift. I guess it sounded as if I had met the most oddly interesting person in the entire country, on the train, economy-class, on the way back to Surabaya. Speaking of imagination.

Tip number 4: Latching and aligning

When someone is about to finish their turn in a conversation, you pick up the baton immediately yes? You don’t wait until the turn completely finishes, especially when you have the urge to reply either because you’re too excited or too angry. You latch your turn like “Do you think that consumer products made in the past are of a better quality than the products made tod—” You: “AAAbsolutely!” *hands almost smashing the table* And then you proceed with the explanation why an old Camaro is still better than the newest Honda on so many different levels.

Does that really work? Yes, if you use it to show genuine interests, genuine agreement, genuine disagreement, genuine excitement, genuine irritation. You turn the test into a real conversation by showing genuineness. Another example: “Many people think that weathers and seasons today are very unpredictab—” You: “CANNOT agree more!” And then you go on and on about how things used to be different in the past and how global temperature has risen to an alarming degree.

That, my friend, is latching. It is very natural in real conversations. It’s a conversational device. So why don’t we use it to make the speaking test more life-like. Imagine if I answered like this: “Do you think that consumer products made in the past are of a better quality than the products made today?” *a second later* “Yes I think so”; “Many people think that weathers and seasons today are very unpredictable, what is your opinion?” *two seconds later* “I agree with that”

Sounds like a droid from the Star Wars prequels.

And then aligning is when you win the heart of the interlocutor by, I’m not sure how to put it, making your explanation relatable in the best possible way maybe. Example is the question about consumer products. That came from the man who had to excused himself for lunch. He was probably in his late fifties, from America most likely, and so I guess comparing a Camaro and a Honda would be relevant. I swear I could see him flicking a smile when I said how easy it was for a Honda to get dented by, even the slightest, minor inconvenience.

Tip number 5: Calling the examiner by the name

So, these examiners will introduce themselves to you at the beginning of the test yes? Take the trouble to remember their name. I do this every time in real life though. I have the habit to remember people’s names because that makes my teaching job easier, and because I think that’s a nice thing to do. That lady who asked me a question about weathers and seasons, her name was Alana. She’s a very lovely lady, but she got the nerve to ask me why a lot of people were concerned about climate change. Then I went like, “Because it’s REAL, Alana!” with that very dramatic intonation showing genuine irritation and hands actually (but playfully) smashing the table.

Not that I recommended you to start calling people by their first name. That was an accident. I think It’s more appropriate to call them Mr. and Ms. Something. But what I’m trying to say is, people feel appreciated when you remember their name so I guess this will make a good impression of you. In case of curiosity, I shook Alana’s hand at the end of the test saying, “Thank you, Alana. It’s been a pleasure” and all was well. I didn’t have a major disagreement or anything. Poor lady asking about climate change to an environmentally inclined test-taker. Seriously though, Alana. I knew you were just picking a random question back then but if you happen to read this, just want to let you know that climate change is real, thank you.

Anyway, in a nutshell, to score higher, I guess the bottom line is to show genuineness, to make it real. I guess the closer it gets to a real conversation then the better the impressions. Finally, to brag one more time about my IELTS speaking score, 8.5. Honestly, the first was beginner’s luck. The second and the third, I cheated I must say. Both was after I studied conversation analysis in formal education. Truly unfair cz I then became aware of how to use a trick or two. But hey maybe you could try the tips and then see if they work for you too. Good luck.