Are you preparing for the IELTS test?
Finding it hard to talk about people or things in Part Two or Three of the speaking test?
In this guide, I want to show you why you should be using stories to describe people and things in the IELTS test.
In the IELTS speaking test, the examiner might ask you to describe a person or an object.
He might say to you: Can you describe a member of your family?
And then you have to talk about your mother or father or some other member of your family.
I have heard many students do this quite poorly. They often just recite a few remembered phrases or a list of things about the person.
I think you know what I mean…
- My father is tall
- My father wears glasses
- My father is an engineer
- My father likes to play chess
- My father has black hair
It just sounds terrible…
And the student often goes into a panic as they try to think of more vocabulary to reel off.
You end up just saying things that are too simple for the IELTS test.
What you really need to come up with are more complex ideas.
One of the best ways to describe people or objects is to tell a story.
If you can do this, you can link all the ideas about that person or object together.
All the sentences have one coherent goal.
The examiner loves this! He loves to hear stories…
Plus, you use more likely to use complex language and the examiner likes this too.
In the following few pages, I want to show you how to do this yourself.
Let’s get into it…
What You Have To Describe In The IELTS TEST
The examiner might ask you to describe one of the following:
- a person
- an object
- an activity
Describing A Person
So, a person could be anyone from a teacher, a friend or a family member to a neighbour to a classmate or a person from your past.
Let me give you some advice about describing people.
You don’t need to practice describing different people in different situations.
This is totally unnecessary!
You can use ONE PERSON to talk about a variety of questions.
So the examiner might ask you: Describe someone that you admire.
That could be
- your mother
- your teacher
- your friend
- or a famous person in history
But the examiner might also ask you:
Describe someone who taught you a valuable lesson
And that could be the same people above!
Describing An Object
You may also have to describe an object.
This could be any object, from your smartphone to a book you have read.
It could also be a place — like a city or a building.
Describing An Activity
Or you might have to describe an activity.
This could be an interest or a hobby. Or something you like to do in the evening or some kind of sport.
Check out these other great articles for the IELTS speaking test…
Remember to Check the Prompts
In Part Two of the IELTS speaking test, you are given a topic card.
On the card, are several prompts. Read each of these prompts carefully, as they can give you some strong ideas about what to say.
- Who the person is
- What the object is
- How you know this person
- How did you come to own this object
- Why you like this person
- Why you like this object
But often what students do is just look at the main question or instruction at the top of the topic card.
- Describe a neighbour you know
- Describe an object you use every day
That’s why students often just reel off lists…
My neighbour is an old man.
He lives in a house on my street.
He has a dog.
He always smiles at me.
It’s dull and completely uninspiring!
That’s why I advocate telling stories.
Stories can really help you…
How to Describe a Person with Personal Stories
So let’s look at stories.
Let’s examine some ways to describe things or people by using interesting anecdotes.
One topic could be:
Describe a Favourite Teacher
A relatively easy topic to begin with, but a good start. You could say something like this:
There is a teacher in my school, and his name is Michael. Everyone likes him and I like him too.
He is quite tall and has short, dark hair.
He has a great sense of humour, and it makes his classes very interesting.
That could be your introduction to your favourite teacher. You give enough information so the examiner has a mental picture of your teacher.
But now you could tell a story…
One day, we were in class and Michael was showing us something about gravity.
He went through all the theories of gravity, and then we did a few experiments.
Michael reminded us that the denser the object is, the faster it falls as gravity takes effect.
He said, “That’s why Jeremy’s head will fall faster than any object in the room”.
We all laughed. Michael always makes fun of Jeremy and it makes the whole class more fun.
Jeremy laughed too.
No, your story will not win any awards or get made into a TV series.
Netflix will not run a show called The Funniest Teacher.
It is a simple story, but it effectively shows the humour that Michael the teacher uses in his classes and lessons.
By telling the story, you can show the humour your teacher has rather than just saying: “My teacher has a good sense of humour, therefore he is funny”.
The examiner would also be happy to hear this little anecdote.
Exercise 1: Describing People with Stories
Any time you want to describe something, you can turn it into a short story.
Try this as an exercise now.
Tell a story about a teacher. But emphasize one major part of their personality.
Maybe a teacher that was always happy.
Or maybe angry.
Or very strict or easy-going.
Don’t worry so much about describing the teacher. Just try to tell your story.
If you are doing this in a class or with friends, try to make class presentations in front of your classmates and teacher.
Ask them for feedback.
Describing Character with Stories
Stories are a great way you can describe someone without actually using the words to describe their virtues or bad character.
For example, I could describe a neighbour like this:
We have a neighbour that lives next door to us.
He has a small dog, and it is always barking, night and day.
It was really hard for me to do my homework because the dog kept on barking.
Then one day, my mum ran out of patience. She went next door and said to the man that his dog was disturbing us.
The man just shook his head. “What do you want me to do about it? Dogs bark. That’s what they like to do. I can’t stop the dog from barking. He doesn’t understand.”
What is the student describing here?
Well, of course, all three play a part in the story, but essentially the student is describing the neighbour and the fact that he is so stubborn and inconsiderate.
I hope you can start to see what I mean about using stories here.
Describing Objects with Stories
What if the topic was about an object?
No problem. There is a story in everything.
Maybe the topic card reads:
Describe an object you bought
This is very easy. All you have to do is tell the story of the day you bought the object.
But I have heard many students describe the colour, the shape and the size of the thing they bought.
This is not enough…
Let’s imagine that the object you want to describe is a school bag.
It could go something like this:
I needed a new school bag, so my mother gave me some money to go and buy one.
There’s a shop near my home that sells bags, so I went there.
Inside the store, they had many different bags. Bags for sport, for work, for casual use. They just had a huge selection.
A shop assistant came over to help me and asked me what I was looking for. I told her that I was looking for a casual bag for school.
She led me to a big shelf filled full of different kinds of bags. They had a lot of shoulder bags and I was glad about this as I prefer shoulder bags for school.
She picked one bag up and asked if I liked it. She said it was very popular, and many students came in to buy this bag.
I immediately rejected it, as I didn’t want to have the same bag as everyone else.
Then I saw this really cool-looking bag.
It was a shoulder bag, so that was good. But it had this great colour scheme of orange and black. The two colours seemed to look great together.
I chose this one.
Is this kind of story going to win any prizes?
I think not.
But is the examiner going to like this talk about buying a bag?
Yes, I think he will.
And what does the story describe here?
The shop assistant?
In fact, it uses all the above to help describe the bag the student chose in the end.
All these elements complement each other and help to complete the story description of the bag.
Exercise 2: Describe an Object with a Story
Try this as an exercise.
Try to talk about going out to buy something you own.
You are going to make a short talk about the day you bought something.
Think about where you went, who you went with, what choices you had and why you chose the object you bought.
Again, you could stand at the front of the class and give your presentation to your classmates and teacher.
Describing the Details of an Object with Stories
It is all very well if all you are talking about is the day you bought an item.
But what if you have to talk about the details of the object?
There is still a story there…
Let’s say you are talking about some headphones you own.
The story could go something like this:
My headphones are great because they have noise-cancellation.
I often forget this when I am outside.
One time I was on my way to school on the bus. I was listening to music with my headphones, as I always do.
I was really getting into the music and listening to my favourite singer — Ricky Rocket.
I forgot that I was on the bus and I started to sing out loud to the song. I didn’t think I was singing that loud, but when I looked around I saw a group of girls all laughing at me.
I couldn’t even hear my own voice. That’s how good my headphones are.
Is he really describing the technical details of the headphones?
No, of course not.
But these are the kind of talks that get high points in the IELTS test.
Exercise 3: Describe the Details of an Object with a Story
Now try this exercise.
You are going to describe the details of an object you own.
An easy thing to talk about is the apps on your smartphone.
Prepare a talk about using one or two apps on your phone.
For example, maybe you use Google Maps on your phone. You could talk about how you were lost in a part of town where you live.
And you used Google Maps to help you.
It’s very simple, but the story will help you talk longer about the app.
Describing Personal Interests with Stories
Finally, let’s look at the last category — your interests.
The examiner might ask you to describe an interest or past-time. Maybe something you like to do at the weekend.
Or it could be to describe a social event, like a time you went out for dinner or went to a party.
Once again, let me remind you there are hundreds of stories for you to talk about on these topics.
Imagine you are asked to describe an activity you regularly do.
You can introduce the activity and then go into detail with one particular episode.
For example, the topic could be to describe a hobby.
Maybe the answer is something like this:
In my free time, I like to fly my drone around and take pictures and videos of the surrounding area.
You have to be very careful when flying the drone over certain areas, as it could be dangerous.
One time, I was flying my drone in a busy area of the city not far from my home. There are many high buildings there and at night time it’s a little hard to see clearly.
Plus, there are a lot of lights coming off the buildings, advertising different things.
I was keeping an eye on my drone, but I got distracted and lost sight of it for a moment.
I panicked for a minute because if the drone flew into something, it could crash and maybe hurt someone.
Then, just as I was getting really worried, I caught sight of it again and I brought it back towards me.
In this description-story, you highlight perfectly the dangers of flying a drone in the city centre.
There is not much else to this story.
You describe the city centre a little, but that only serves to expose the dangers of drones flying at night in the city.
This would be a great answer — or part of an answer — in part two of the IELTS test.
Exercise 4: Describe a Personal Interest with Stories
Let’s try this exercise.
Tell a story about one of your interests or hobbies.
If you don’t have any real interests, then talk about something you like to do at the weekend.
The story could be about something funny. Or dangerous, as in the story above.
Your story can have any kind of feeling or emotion. It is your story!
And of course… class presentations at the end.
To sum up, what I think is important is to encourage you to think about stories.
If you look at many IELTS books or websites when trying to help the student describe things, they usually just provide a list of vocabulary and some phrases to help the student describe things or people.
This is fine for lower-level students, but for students that are ready to take the IELTS test soon, you need to be able to express yourself much more clearly than that.
You need to describe things and people with more clarity and detail. And that is where stories can help you.
This is especially true in Part Two, but I think stories and little anecdotes can be very useful in any part of the IELTS speaking test.
If you can do this in the test, then I am sure it will benefit you in terms of your overall score.
Let me know what you think in the comments below!
If you liked this guide, why not sign up for my free newsletter? I can send you useful guides like the one above and other articles and lesson plans.
Click the link below.