Maintaining Composure and Fluency: A Guide to Tackling Unfamiliar IELTS Speaking Topics 

 April 5, 2024

By  Jonathan

The IELTS Speaking test aims to assess your ability to communicate across a variety of topics – some might be familiar, while others may feel less comfortable or entirely unknown. Encountering a difficult or unfamiliar topic can trigger anxiety, disrupting your fluency and clarity. However, utilising specific strategies can help you stay calm, think clearly under pressure, and confidently express yourself during the speaking aspect of your IELTS test.

Why Prepare for Unfamiliar Topics?

  • Test-Taking Reality: Unforeseen questions are a natural part of assessing conversational ability.
  • Showcase Adaptability: Handling unfamiliar topics demonstrates flexibility and problem-solving skills.
  • Maintain Fluency: Focusing on strategies prevents panic and hesitation, promoting a smoother flow of speech.

Strategies for Success

  1. Don’t Panic, Think Strategically
    • Take a Deep Breath: A brief pause allows you to calm your nerves and refocus your mind.
    • It’s Not About Perfect Knowledge: The examiner isn’t testing your expertise in a specific field. It’s about showcasing your ability to communicate thoughts logically.
  2. Break Down the Prompt
    • Identify Keywords: Focus on the core concept or issue being asked about, even if the context is unfamiliar.
    • Connections to What You Know: Can you relate any aspect of the topic to your prior knowledge, general opinions, or broader trends?
  3. Utilize Stalling Tactics (Subtly)
    • Rephrase the Question: Summarizing the task in your own words buys you thinking time and ensures you understand correctly.
    • Start with What You Do Know: Begin with a general observation or a related but more familiar aspect to ease your way into the topic.
    • Use Filler Phrases: A few strategically placed “ums” or “well” can give you extra moments to collect your thoughts.
  4. Draw on General Knowledge and Reasoning
    • Think About Related Issues: Can you connect the topic to broader themes you are familiar with (globalization, ethics, technological impact, etc.)?
    • Structure Your Answer Logically: Even if your content knowledge is limited, organizing your thoughts into a clear intro, supporting points, and a brief conclusion demonstrates clear thinking.
  5. Example-Driven Approach (Especially for Part 2)
    • Personal Experience: Can you think of a short, relevant anecdote from your life, even if it only partially connects to the topic?
    • Hypothetical Example: Invent a brief scenario to illustrate a related point or demonstrate your understanding of how a concept might apply. Be clear that this is hypothetical.
  6. Be Honest, but Don’t Give Up
    • Avoid Bluffing: Don’t fabricate knowledge you don’t have – the examiner will likely recognize this.
    • Maintain a Positive Approach: Instead of saying “I don’t know anything about this,” try “This is a new topic for me, but I believe… ” or “I’m not familiar with the specifics, but in broader terms…”

Practice Examples

Topic: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on the Healthcare Industry

  • Panicked Response: “I know nothing about AI or healthcare. I’m going to fail.”
  • Strategic Approach:
    • “This is a complex topic, but I’m aware of the growing role technology plays in many industries. While I’m not familiar with specific AI healthcare applications, I imagine there are potential benefits in diagnostics or improved efficiency.”

Part 2 Topic: Describe a Traditional Celebration in Your Country

  • Giving Up: “I can’t think of anything, we don’t really have those.”
  • Strategic Approach:
    • “While we may not have large-scale traditional festivals, family gatherings are important in my culture. For example, each year we have a special meal to celebrate…”

Additional Tips

  • Broaden Your Interests: Reading news or listening to discussions on diverse subjects builds a base of general knowledge for potential connections.
  • Practice with Unexpected Prompts: Have a friend surprise you with random speaking prompts for improvised practice.

Remember: Unfamiliar topics are an opportunity to show your adaptability and communication skills under pressure. Composure, effort, and structured thinking are valued more highly than perfect subject knowledge.

Important Note: If you truly understand nothing about the topic, politely ask the examiner for a different question. This is rare but permissible.

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.