One of the most important things to know about the IELTS exam is that candidates must have an opinion on the topics they're given, and be able to discuss their opinions with the examiner. This is crucial to getting a good band score but, unfortunately, is almost never taught in IELTS preparation schools and courses.
For some candidates this doesn't pose a problem, but for candidates from cultures such as China or Japan, it can become a huge barrier. In these countries, it is taboo to cause someone to lose face (eg. become embarrassed); this is also true in many other Asian countries as well. Candidates may also face a handicap stemming from their education system, where large class sizes lead to rote memorization. Students are expected to memorize and repeat back the teacher's ideas; individual thought is frowned upon and can lead to lower grades.
However, in Western culture the expectation is reversed; our society dictates that people should have opinions and voice them. When people appear to be too reserved, it creates an awkward social climate, where listeners wonder why the person speaking is acting strangely. They may even form the opinion that the speaker is being deceptive and will trust the speaker less and less.
In the IELTS speaking exam (and in the writing exam, as well), the examiner will look for candidates to offer their opinions on different topics. This will not happen immediately in the speaking test; in Part 1 of speaking, the conversation between the examiner and the candidate will seem more like “small talk” (ie. “How's the weather?”). Candidates should give short answers, no longer than two to three sentences; they will not have enough time to suggest a point of view and should not try.
In Parts 2 and 3 of the speaking test, candidates will have a chance to talk at length and should offer their thoughts on the topic. However, it is not important to be right or to have the correct answer. No examiner will ever tell you “You're WRONG!!” (if they do, if that does happen, you should go and talk to a supervisor immediately after the test). The speaking test (and writing test) is not an evaluation of what you know or how smart you are. It is a measurement of how well you can express your ideas, regardless of what they are.
Some candidates have told me in the past (in and out of the speaking tests) that they were given a topic that they knew nothing about. This leads to my final point. First, part of the candidate's job is to prepare for the topics that they might be given. This may seem unfair, but if you have a general knowledge of most day to day events and situations, you should be reasonably prepared. You will never, ever be given a topic during the speaking test about medicine, law, engineering or anything such as these, but you may be asked to describe a doctor who once treated you. Unless you have never, ever been to see a doctor, a question like this would be a part of daily life and living, so you would be expected to answer the question.
A more common example might be where a candidate is asked to talk about their favourite sport. “Well, I don't like sports, can we discuss something else?”. Regrettably, no, we can't. Once the examiner has chosen and provided the topic to you, they are not allowed to change the topic. These are the rules of the IELTS exam and the examiners must follow them as well as the candidates. So what should you do? The answer is actually quite simple: Lie!! That's right; just make something up.
You may be shaking your head at this point, but let me again repeat what I said earlier: IELTS is not a test of your knowledge, it is a test of your ability to communicate. As long as the examiner can understand your logic (even if they disagree with it), then you have succeeded. If you change the topic, however, the examiner will stop you and remind you to stay on point. For example, a Part 3 question could be something like “Tell me about a trip you took during which you had a bad experience”. If you have never had a bad trip, you could reply by telling them about the time you got food poisoning in a restaurant while on vacation. This never really happened but you could make up a fake story, about how you suspected there was something wrong with the food and sent it back, but only after you had eaten one or two bites; then talk about the waiter's reaction and response, and when you actually became ill (it was after you had returned to your hotel), etc. This story, false as it may be, is completely on topic and would satisfy the question being asked.
For Asian candidates, this will not be an easy strategy to use, and you should practice doing this, making up fake stories quickly, with your friends, colleagues or classmates. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. And if you have more questions about the IELTS exam, or would like to take a trial class, don't be shy. I love talking about IELTS and English, which is why I'm here, and I look forward to meeting you, too.