September 15, 2003

The Business of Communication

Eric Rangus

In conversation, Molly Epstein’s eyes never waver from those of a companion. The tone of her voice is even, engaging, genuine and accessible. When explaining something complex, she isn’t remotely condescending or obtuse. People could learn a lot from talking to Molly Epstein.

It’s a good thing that many do.

Epstein, assistant professor of management communication, is team leader
of the management communication program in the Goizueta Business School. Teaching professional and corporate communications skills to business students is her job, and the ease with which she speaks makes her perfect for it.

“Regardless of your focus, the one thing you will need to do well is communicate,” said Epstein, who was talking specifically about business people, but her points could easily be applied to anyone.

Management communication courses are offered to Goizueta students in both the BBA and MBA programs, and they focus on three general themes: writing, speaking and teamwork. Those three areas encompass a wide swath of communication ranging from the skill necessary to write a simple e-mail (see box) or PowerPoint slide to making a presentation at a team meeting and to working with people at different job levels.

Foremost among them, though, is writing. “There is so much overload now, we don’t have an opportunity to read everything,” Epstein said. “So we are training our students to present ideas in two ways: First in a clear way that can be skimmed yet engages the reader, and then to write each paragraph correctly and clearly so once the reader is engaged, he or she can understand the message.”

While Epstein worked in the advertising industry for several years, her academic background is not in business. She went to college wanting to be an English teacher and has a bachelor’s degree in general education from Northwestern (she also earned a master’s in advertising from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism).

After walking away from advertising in the early 1990s, Epstein decided to pursue her original love of teaching and entered graduate school in English at Georgia State. On her first day of class at GSU, she struck up a conversation with the man next to her, who said the business communication department was hiring and asked if she was interested in a job.

She said yes, got the job and spent the next seven years teaching business communication at GSU while earning a master’s in English literature and a doctorate in English. Her dissertation, a nice blend of her twin loves of business and literature was titled, “Wrong By Any Economy: An Economic Interpretation of William Faulkner’s The Hamlet.”

Anyone who can weave the significance of a Sears catalog into the lives of characters in a Faulker novel (and back it up), as Epstein did in her dissertation, is clearly a gifted communicator.

Epstein came to Emory as a part-time instructor in 1997, became full-time in 1998 and was promoted to assistant professor in 2001. In addition to her full-time teaching load, Epstein keeps her plate full with campus activities. For four years she has worked with fellows at the Frye Institute on business writing. She co-leads (with Kembrel Jones, assistant dean and director of the MBA program) the Goizueta Plus program, a professional development and coaching seminar for first-year MBA students that focuses on communication.

With Goizueta’s Graduate Women in Business (GWIB), she has led discussions on gender communications issues in the business world. Epstein’s presentation was so valuable that it has been added as a core course module for MBAs. So instead of speaking to a friendly audience of women small enough to fit around a conference table, Epstein now makes presentations on the subject in 180-seat auditoriums that are 75 percent male.

“Women wanted men to know that there are communication differences,” Epstein said. “We not only want to train women how to communicate, but also train men how to communicate effectively if their supervisor is a woman.”

If anything, Epstein’s life off campus is even more vibrant than her work here at Emory. “My philosophy is we all have a responsibility to use our talents in a way that benefits our community,” she said.

Epstein and her husband Jon, an English teacher for the City of Marietta school system, moved to the intown neighborhood of Underwood Hills while both were doctoral students at GSU. At the time, Underwood Hills, which is just north of Georgia Tech, was an emerging neighborhood plagued by prostitutes and drug dealers—particularly Underwood Park, a dilapidated greenspace with rusted playground equipment that was wasting away beneath the criminal element.

Epstein, along with some neighbors, took it upon themselves to clean things up. Beginning in 2000, Epstein started fundraising. First, she sent letters to area businesses. If anyone was remotely interested she would meet with them and present her vision of the park and neighborhood. Epstein’s efforts were a perfect test case for applying her skills in the real world.

“One of the things we teach our students is to focus on the benefits to the audience,” she said. What would be better, she’d ask potential donors, than an upgraded, crime-free neighborhood?

In the end, Epstein raised $80,000 to renovate the park with new playground equipment, benches, picnic tables and a new pavilion. The city of Atlanta kicked in $100,000 for infrastructure improvements. “It was all because of effective communication,” Epstein said. The new equipment debuted in fall 2002.

Epstein perhaps has slightly selfish (but completely understandable) reasons for wanting to have a nice play space within walking distance of her house. It gives her ever-growing family somewhere to run free. Epstein is mother to two toddlers (Mia, 3, and Nora, 2) and a newly arrived baby boy (7-week-old Bryan).

Having returned to work barely a month after Bryan was born, Epstein describes the experience as “surreal.”

“It’s difficult to be a working mom,” she said. “But it is also tremendously rewarding. I could have taken a semester off, but I chose to come back because I think it’s important that my students see that women can do both.”

Epstein has given birth to all her children since coming to Emory, which accidentally, but not unwillingly, has thrown her into the role of champion for working women.

It is not uncommon for students to ask her about the difficulties of starting a family while their careers are just beginning. Epstein enjoys sitting down with them, and discussing her own personal experiences and offering advice.

“I’ve served as a sounding board for women and issues of motherhood, because there really isn’t a source of information that’s readily available,” she said. “In many cases, it’s not something women are even comfortable bringing up with Human Resources.”

While Epstein said the atmosphere at Goizueta has been very accommodating not just to her but other young faculty and student mothers, it’s not always easy being a parent—and a woman.

“I struggle sometimes with maintaining authority yet publicly being a mother,” she said. On occasion she brings Bryan to work and he will stay in her office, but she does not bring him into the classroom. While it may sometimes be a struggle, being both a mother and a business leader is not impossible.

“You can do both and do both well,” Epstein said. “But for a woman to be an effective mother and an effective executive, she needs the support of her organization, and a lot of organizations are responding because they see the contributions these women are making.”

Communicating that, at least for Epstein, shouldn’t be a struggle at all.