Q&A: Two Minutes with Randall Munson on iSeries, COMMON, and Public Speaking

by MaryAnn Ratchford
Acquisitions Editor

September 12, 2003—This week, for about the umpteenth time, Randall Munson walked away from a COMMON conference toting a gold medal designating him a Speaker of Excellence. Each conference, COMMON attendees rank the best speakers, and the 1 percent voted the cream of the crop—typically two to four speakers—gets the gold. Munson has never failed to make the cut. And no wonder. The former IBMer combines lively presentation skills with deep technical knowledge—with a bit of magic mixed in. In the dead serious world of triggers, queries, and RPG, Munson’s not afraid to clown around. iSeries NEWS Acquisitions Editor MaryAnn Ratchford recently caught up with Munson to chat about what it takes to give a great presentation.

iSN: How long were you with IBM?

Munson: I was with IBM for 20 years and all of that time at the development laboratory in Rochester, Minnesota.

iSN: While you were there, what types of projects did you work on?

Munson: Mostly operating system development. I was doing some of the programming and architecture work on the midrange series. I also did some interfacing between the laboratory and the sales and marketing organization, so I was able to help bridge the gap of understanding between the sales and marketing people trying to understand the technology, and the technology people trying to understand the marketplace. Also, I spent a fair amount of time teaching classes internally and externally to IBMers and to IBM customers and was the executive advocate for some of our largest customers.

iSN: How would you describe the business you’re involved in now?

Munson: I resigned from IBM [to start] a company called Creatively Speaking, and we help technology companies improve their sales, showing them how to explain their products in a way that interests and motivates prospects to actually buy—instead of just simply listen and think about the product.

iSN: I heard that you’ve just been selected as one of the world’s greatest business mentors. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Munson: Yes, it’s pretty exciting. There was an international search looking for the greatest influencers of business today. And out of that search people were selected such as Mark Victor Hansen, Brian Tracy, Robert Allen—and I found out just recently that I’ve been selected. So, we’ll all be featured in a book of the same title, “The World’s Greatest Business Mentors,” and it’s quite an honor to be recognized for the work I do and to be among that group. They are expecting it to be a best seller, so that will be exciting.

iSN: Is speaking now your full-time job?

Munson: Speaking and consulting. I’m now a Certified Speaking Professional, and I speak at lots of conferences and sales meetings, usually keynote presentations on sales, creativity, and humor. I consult with companies—technology companies primarily—helping them increase their sales significantly.

iSN: A little bit different question for you—when did you become a clown and a magician?

Munson: (laughter) Well, I always wanted to be a clown when I grew up—that was my life’s ambition since I was a little munchkin. After I graduated from college with my degrees in computer science, I was actually able to act on that dream and to join a clown club and became a clown. It turned out, I was pretty good at it, and now I’m considered to be one of the top clowns in the country. I teach at a clown college, and I’ve won lots and lots of different entertainment awards. Being a professional magician also comes out of a childhood interest in magic. I used to drive my family and friends crazy doing magic tricks all the time.

iSN: So, did you go to clown college?

Munson: I didn’t go to a clown college myself, but I do teach at a number of the clown college things—clown camps and clown workshops and clown conventions—and I do a lot of speaking and performing at those and teaching various clown skills and magic.

iSN: How do you go from the tech world to being a clown and a magician? Is there a correlation that’s not readily apparent?

Munson: It helps if you’re schizophrenic (laughter). Well, actually those are two very different worlds, and there are very few people who can bridge between the very creative world of entertainment and the very logical world of computer science and information technology. But, being able to work comfortably in both worlds allows me to help relate one to the other.

And so, while technical people often see things one way and the people in the business world see things a different way, by being able to bridge both, I can help them communicate with each other—and help technology people explain their product and complex technology in simple ways that other people find interesting and valuable.

iSN: Your COMMON presentations always get gold medals because they use humor to very simply explain complex subjects. Has there ever been a subject that even you’ve found to be too dry to make interesting?

Munson: Haven’t yet. I’ve explained some pretty awful things (laughter), from the architecture of the AS/400 to business intelligence and data warehousing and [object-oriented] programming and how all of work management works.

Often, I’m called upon when others have a hard time explaining a complex subject—they come to me and say, “You know how you do that thing where you can explain this stuff in a way that people actually understand? Can you do it for us?” I go about doing that by deluging myself with the technical information, understanding it thoroughly, and then from that, extracting the concepts that are most critical, and then finding creative ways to explain them to people in ways that they can easily understand and remember.

One of the comments that I often get on my technical presentations is “I finally understand it.” For me, that’s a great reaction. That means that I’ve been successful in explaining this tough technical stuff in ways that people understand and that they will remember. I often have people tell me years later, “you know, I’ll never forget the time that you used a rubber chicken to explain something, and it will stick with me forever.”

Using these types of creative skills and creative imagery is very helpful for people to understand and remember. People remember images and emotions—that’s why magic or stories or illustrations or just using simple objects like Lego’s to explain the architecture of the iSeries, helps people to understand and remember. It gives them a different way of making the connections in their brain. Not simply seeing text or hearing verbal expressions of it.

iSN: Your Web site lists bookings from all over the world. To what do you attribute that worldwide popularity?

Munson: I think that it’s coming because people appreciate the results. It is not so much because the presentations are fun, but because people realize that when they walk out of the presentations, they have a set of knowledge or skills that they didn’t have before, and it is universal. That is, the explanations of the technology are things that span multiple cultures across multiple continents. And so, I get calls from countries all over the world to come in and do that for their people and for international conferences, because it is not bound to a specific language or a specific culture. Using imagery and broader, creative ways of expressing technical content helps span cultural barriers.

iSN: With bookings from all over the world, what keeps bringing you back to COMMON year after year?

Munson: COMMON is where I got my start. I did my first speaking when I went to COMMON—at the very first COMMON conference that I attended I did one third of a session (with two other speakers) and every time I came back after that, I volunteered to do at least one presentation. That eventually developed into the business that I now have.

People started asking me if I could come and explain things to their company and speak to their people, and I discovered that people would pay me for that! They kept doing that so much that I finally came to the point where I had to make a significant career decision about whether I would continue in the IBM Corporation or I would work exclusively within my own company, and I made the entrepreneurial decision. COMMON has meant a lot to me and I still like to return to give back to COMMON and the great people in this industry.

iSN: Lots of people would like to give great presentations, but they don’t know magic and their jokes fall flat. What do you recommend for those of us who are oratorially challenged or who have trouble communicating technical product information?

Munson: Well, I think one of the important things that we should do is make sure we communicate the information in a way that people can easily understand. Some of the things that I do really don’t depend on magic or humor, although I find that they help people to loosen up and to understand things. Those are notable, and I get a reputation for using those things, but in reality some of my presentations do not use those extensively. They use the kinds of things that everybody else can do.

In fact, in one of my presentations called “How to Deliver a GREAT Technical Presentation!” I point out at the end of it that, throughout the entire presentation, I did not do any magic. I explained all of the concepts of how to do these great presentations using techniques that everybody else could do, so it doesn’t require those unique kinds of skills. It’s simply a matter of explaining information in a way that’s very easy to understand.

iSN: What are some of the pitfalls that people tend to fall into as they’re presenting technical information?

Munson: Some of those that I see over and over and over are: trying to slam too much information into the presentation. People seem to think that the more information they can shovel in, the more value they’re bringing. When in reality, all they’re doing is throwing out a bunch of information and, like buckets of paint thrown against the wall, very little of it sticks. When I work with people and with companies, I help them see that it’s better for people to walk out understanding a few things well than to have heard a whole bunch of things and not really understand them. So, it is not a matter of simply pouring out information rapidly. It is a matter of carefully constructing the information in a way that it is digestible and comprehensible and memorable.

Another pitfall that people have is that they fail to show the value of what they’re explaining. They get into the bowels of the technical stuff and think that it’s obvious to the observer why they should care about it and what this is going to bring to their organization. By focusing on the value—and showing not only what it does, but why it’s helpful, and what it can do for you—it causes people to care more about the subject, which causes them to pay closer attention and understand it better. It gives them involvement, a desire to want to know this stuff, because they see how it can be helpful to them.

Another pitfall is using visuals inappropriately. In a PowerPoint presentation, often there is too much dependence on the presentation slides. You’ve heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” well a word can be worth a thousand pictures too, when it is said in an articulate and meaningful way.

iSN: If you could take Sam Palmisano’s place for a day, would you do anything differently with regards to the iSeries?

Munson: IBM has intentionally restructured the branding for all of their platforms. They’ve devoted a lot of resources and a lot of work in doing that to make them appear very homogenous.

What’s unfortunate for the iSeries is that it’s a very unique platform, and when these platforms are all melded together, the uniqueness, the quality, is not coming out. Things like the iSeries architecture and its intrinsic power for database and business intelligence; the inherent security of the architecture as opposed to other systems that are constantly being hit with viruses, hacking, and so forth; the unparalleled reliability of the system—these are being downplayed because, in contrast, they make the other servers look bad.

So, if I were in his position, although I certainly would keep the eServer branding intact, I would take advantage of those unique attributes of the iSeries that could be used to my benefit in the marketplace.

Copyright 2003, Penton Technology Media
For the complete iSeries News article click here (www.iseriesnetwork.com/nwn/story.cfm?ID=17250)