Pan Narrans


The story-telling ape and how he spoils your choices.


“In last week's email, we shared how different business owners were winning the selling game by telling great stories.”

A typical business development blog

Those of you who like their education with a bit of entertainment may well know the series of books on the Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. One of the minor items that falls out of their broad remit of the whole of science is Pan Narrans, the storytelling ape (The Science of Discworld II – The Globe). Very briefly, instead of being Homo Sapiens, mankind ought to be described as Pan Narrans as we’re not much above the chimpanzee, we simply tell stories more eloquently.

It’s this evolutionary development of storytelling and our dependence upon it that affects the way we act together and the choices that we make, not always in a good way.

“History is written by the winners. Though not greyhounds and racehorses.”

Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar – Britain’s place in the world, Radio 4, 09/11/17

What about the content of the story, the plot, the characters?

I once went to a business seminar, the sort where the panel of millionaires takes questions. Inevitably, the question arose, “As a truly successful businessman, what is your advice to an entrepreneur just starting out?”

Came the, also, inevitable answer, “Don’t give up. Keep at it. Eventually, you’ll make a sale.”

Then the epiphany struck me. The answer boiled down to, “Keep pushing your stupid product until you find someone more stupid than you who will buy it.”

Stories have heroes who live to tell the tale, they have million to one chances, they have the rewards of perseverance. Reality has heroes who never come back, punters who bet all and lose, unrequited lovers who die old and lonely and unfulfilled. And it has many more of all three.

Two-thirds of companies fail within three years. Sixty per cent of projects fail. If we base too many of our choices on the stories we hear from the lucky few then we risk falling into the unlucky many.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, that we shouldn’t be inspired, that we shouldn’t hope. It means that we ought to consider the chances of success and the consequences for ourselves and those close to us. Re-possessed houses rarely have only one occupant. Bankrupt firms have workforces.

It means putting in the effort up-front to make the best choices in the first place. Von Clausewitz talks about the selection and maintenance of the aim. Maintenance is great if you selected the right thing in the first place. It has its downside when you picked the wrong one.

I know that stories appeal to our emotion, not our rationality. I’m just asking that we take a pause and put a little rationality into the mix before taking that leap of faith.

We’ll always need stories. We are Pan Narrans after all. What we need is the right sort of stories. “Once upon a time, a group got together and worked on a problem until they came up with a sensible solution…”

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