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How stand-up comedy helps an MIT grad work out her work life

Leigh Shull on why the stage beats the boardroom for instant feedback.

By Kara Baskin  |  May 31, 2017

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“There’s no place better than a stage to get immediate feedback.”

By day, Leigh Shull, MBA ’11, is a senior director and innovation architect at Visa in the company’s new New York City Innovation Studio — opening later this summer. By night, she’s a comic who has performed on the same shows as special guests Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan.

“When it comes to innovation, it’s all about the number of syllables. Why use one when you can use thirteen? I used to ‘think’; now I ‘ideate’. I used to ‘lead strategy.’ Now I ‘architect innovation,’” she jokes in one performance.

Shull got her start as a finalist in a “Funniest Person in Finance” contest at New York City’s Gotham Comedy Club and now appears at the club monthly, thanks to the encouragement of new talent director Andy Engel. In an interview, Shull explained the humor in business school, where to draw the line, and why the stage is the best place for feedback.

What’s so funny about corporate America?
Even dating back to MIT, I found stuff to joke about. I loved it; it was the best two years, and I met my husband. So now I joke about that: At the time I met my husband, dating apps like Tinder and Bumble weren’t big. The “app” was the business school application. In exchange for loan payments, an admissions committee assembles a dating pool for you.

These days, it’s about “work-life integration” so I talk a lot about jargon. “How do you know your marriage is working without key performance indicators?” I joke that my stuffy black work wardrobes are efficient — they double as clothes for work and for my funeral.

We all talk the same talk, kind of wear the same clothing, so how do you differentiate and create awareness and humility? Our lives are so serious. We need humor.

How does comedy help your work?
It helps to get feedback. In the corporate world, it can take a while to see a project to fruition. There’s no place better than a stage to get immediate feedback. There’s something beautifully cathartic and tangible about that. It creates self-awareness from a professional standpoint. You realize that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. You learn to be authentic to yourself and your voice.

In work and in stand-up comedy — it’s all about storytelling. Whether you’re creating a strategic plan or PowerPoint to build a business case, working with a client to design a better user experience, or standing on a stage telling jokes, it’s all about crafting and delivering engaging stories. I’m fortunate that my comedy sets are recorded, so I re-watch them to learn what worked, what joke structures hit, and what delivery was best received.

Also, it’s not just what you say but what you don’t say. You learn to sit and pause. In a client-facing role, you need to create dialogue and engage the client. But you shouldn’t talk the whole time. Stand-up comedy teaches you patience and pause. You go with the awkward silence. By pushing those boundaries, that’s when you start to innovate and come up with real ideas.

How do you determine what’s off limits?
I’m very cautious about making sure any “work” things are high-level enough that they’re relatable to a wide audience and not so specific to reveal anything about my own company. For example: “I’m still in the process of onboarding, so I have no clue how to do my new job, but I can recite at least 93 company policies” — people have that experience everywhere. 

I try to find things that are relatable to many people, like jargon and dress code: 
“Whether I'm at the office or the bar, I dress like I'm standing in an Ann Taylor display case,” or “With my new job, I got a new dress code. I went from business casual to fitted jeans formal.”

But I steer clear of anything that could be interpreted as either being my company’s thoughts or position. I’m thrilled that my team at work is supportive, and I would never compromise that. I have the coolest job in the world.