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#32 How to Tell Your Best Story with John Kaaiohelo

John Kaaiohelo

“Insist on telling a story no matter what. Don’t just talk about your point, ask yourself what’s the absolutely best story you can tell about that point.”

Having trouble figuring out what to write about in your essays? Or how to tell your best story?

If so listen to every minute of this episode.

This week my good friend John Kaaiohelo joined the show to deconstruct how to tell a story that’s memorable and authentic. John’s a master at crafting successful applications, having gotten into Philips Exeter Academy, Princeton University and Harvard University on full-ride scholarships. John is currently writing his first novel.

In this episode, you’ll hear John and I discuss:

  • Why you must view your application as a book
  • What to write about – how to find your best stories
  • John’s simple yet powerful essay editing techniques
  • Why you must earn the right to “lecture”
  • When essays sound disingenuous
  • The importance of letting your final point linger
  • How to be real and talk in your authentic voice
  • The role of recommendations in telling a powerful story
  • Why 80% of your focus should be on scenes

I’m going to make a bold statement and say that you’ve never heard advice like this. Apply John’s techniques to tell a story that adcoms can’t stop thinking about…

John has also kindly offered to respond to any questions or comments below.

Show Notes

Here’s an example of John’s writing technique of starting an essay with a scene.

Question: Please describe a significant event in your life, and how it made you understand the world differently.

Rough Draft

I was raised in the city that embraces a run-and-go lifestyle.  Here, the most productive and easiest way to fascinate people is to catch people’s eyes. Nevertheless, when the eyes have so many distractions and so much colorfulness, they can sometimes get too used to it.

I demanded that the exhibition centers that display my work do so without glass. The protective glass distances people from the inspiration of sculpture.  I wanted everybody that passed in front of my sculptures to have a chance to sense and understand the breathtaking softness, and to see the world not only through eyes.  In my mind, art builds on connection; it helps us to learn, to create and to share.  I realized a long time ago that sculptures can’t be hidden behind walls or glass.  When I was young, I went on a trip to the art museum, and Rodin’s statue “Kiss” held me for a long time.  I closed my eyes to touch the sculpture, feeling my hands pass over a hundred years to hold the hands of the maker.  I felt an honest tremble beneath the surface of that statue.  I came home and hugged my mother and felt her back.  She has never been skinny; rather, she has always been round.  But like sculpture, those soft and smooth lines composed of muscle and bone concealed an intense and powerful strength.

(John’s comments: The central conflict in this essay is that between “catching people’s eyes” vs. catching their sense of touch, right?  I think parts of this essay really are beautifully written.  You have the potential to be a very talented writer.  I would try to focus on that contradiction between knowledge you can get from what you feel… versus knowledge you can get from what you see.  Then tell the reader what your “sense of touch” has taught you that your “sense of sight” could not.)

Final Draft

Rodin’s statue “Kiss” held me close.  I closed my eyes to touch the sculpture, my hands reaching out, across a hundred years, for the hands of the maker.  I wanted to touch him, and him me.  I was raised in a city that embraces a run-and-go lifestyle.  Here, there is a constant effort to catch people’s eyes.  Sometimes, the eyes are blinded by the colorfulness around them, and the eyes become too blinded to see.  I usually ask the exhibition centers that display my work to display it without glass. The protective glass distances people from the instincts that inspire sculpture; you can only see those instincts with your hands.  I want everybody that enjoys my sculptures to sense the soft and breathtaking strength of sculpture, and to see the world not only through their eyes. Sculpture has given me a different perspective on life.  In has taught me that there are many layers of understanding.  Art connects us by teaching, creating, and sharing this understanding.

After the exhibition, I came home and hugged my mother.  I felt her back.  She was not skinny, but rather, had grown round with time.  However, those soft and smooth lines concealed an intense and powerful strength that could not be seen, only felt.  I felt the strong muscles of her back, the soreness in her shoulders, and the stress in her arms.  I saw her warm smile everyday, but until then, had never felt the unspoken responsibilities of her life.  I hugged her tighter.  Perhaps for the first time, I felt her love for me through her embrace.  I kept my eyes closed, feeling what they could not see.

John and Darren in Ho Chi Minh

John and I scooting around Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.

Also, check out this article for scientific proof of the power of story: “Infecting an Audience: Why Great Stories Spread.”

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