Having Fun at Work With Improv—Erin Diehl, Improv Edutainer, Improve It!

Are you familiar with improvisation, commonly known as improv? Many of the great Saturday Night Live cast members started their careers in improv theaters such as Chicago’s Second City. Have you ever wondered how you might apply the skills learned in improv to your business? 

Our guest today is Erin “Big” Diehl, and she shares with us some of her improv strategies for team building, company culture, and professional development. 


Taking care of your needs is of equal importance to your team’s.


Erin “Big” Diehl is a Business Improv Edutainer, Failfluencer, and Professional Zoombie. Through a series of unrelated dares, Erin created improve it!, a unique professional development company that pushes others to laugh, learn, play, and grow. She is the proud host of The improve it! Podcast, which helps develop leaders and teams through play, improv and experiential learning. Among her many accolades, Erin is most proud of successfully coercing over 28,000 professionals to chicken dance. 


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Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (00:01):

Welcome to the Multiply Your Success podcast, where each week we help growth-minded entrepreneurs and franchise leaders take the next step in their expansion journey. I’m your host, Tom Dufore, CEO of Big Sky Franchise Team. As we open today, I want to talk about this idea of improvisation. And are you familiar with it? It’s commonly known as improv. You’re probably familiar with it in theaters, and many of the great Saturday Night Live cast members started their careers in improv theaters such as the famous Second City located in Chicago. Have you ever wondered how these improv skills might apply to your business, your staff, and team? Our guest today is Erin “Big” Diehl, and she shares with us some of her improv strategies for team building, company culture, and professional development.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (00:53):

Now, Erin is a business improv edutainer, failfluencer, and professional zoombie. Through a series of unrelated dares, Erin created Improve It!, a unique professional development company that pushes others to laugh, learn, play, and grow. She’s the host of her podcast, the Improve It! podcast, which helps develop leaders and teams through play improv and experiential learning. Finally, my favorite accolade that Erin likes to highlight about herself is that she has successfully convinced 28,000 professionals to do the chicken dance. You’re going to love this entertaining and uplifting interview with Erin Diehl.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (01:33):

I’m Erin Diehl. I am the founder and chief edutainment officer, that is CEO, of Improve It!.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (01:43):

I love it. One of the reasons, and really the primary reason, why I was just excited to have you on the show is, you focus on improv and improv to help improve your business. Just to start at a really high level, if someone’s not familiar with improv and what that is, will you explain what it is and what it means?

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (02:06):

Yes. Improv is an art form where you make up scenes. These can be 10-, 15-minute scenes. This can be a 30-minute set and a long-form improv on the spot. You literally have no script. You’re given a word, a suggestion, and so I am a professional pretender. It is a real job. People do this for a living. What we do is I’ve learned and studied this art form. There are many schools of thought. I have done almost all of them. My team is compromised of 22 improv professionals who are some of the most hilarious people who are on main stages at Second City, who’ve been flown out to SNL to audition for Lorne Michaels. But what we do is we use the tips and the tricks from the improv stage. There’s so much form and so many fundamentals that go into making improv look easy from an audience perspective.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (03:04):

We take those tips and tricks and we apply them in a professional setting. With that comes super-high collaboration, becomes burst of creativity, becomes innovation, becomes this wonderful collaborative environment where team members connect in a different way than you would never expect on a typical workday. So that is how we use the art form to help people grow, not only professionally. I know we’re talking professionally here, but truly, it is an art form that can help you become the best version of you. I love talking about it, Tom. I’m here for this conversation.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (03:48):

I love it. I had mentioned before we had started the show here, I have a modest theater background in high school and a little bit into college. I was always the person who was cast in seven roles and had seven character changes, but you never had one line. You’re always standing in the back, off here to the side, or whatever. But improv was always so fun. It was always one of those parts of theater that was just fun for warmups. Just going through things as part of that. I’m wondering, as you’re describing this, how would this work if you don’t have a theater background. Do you have to have some type of business that fits in with this creative kind of space?

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (04:26):

That’s a really great question, and this is one of probably the most asked questions that we get. We have worked from roofers. I’m talking about men who install roofs on top of roofs to accountants, to engineers, to IT firms, to marketing agencies, to ad agencies, to literally just name the most creative kind of business in the world where you can go from any type of analytical to creative business. You don’t have to have a background in theater or arts to do this because we facilitate play. It’s literally play. It’s just being. It’s connecting with each other and using laughter as the vessel.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (05:09):

When we use improv to teach in a corporate setting or in a professional setting, we are really using people as the teaching tool. They are experiencing whatever power skill. We don’t call these skills soft skills. I call soft skills power skills, whatever power skill we are there to train them on. Because it’s so experiential, people have what I call the aha haha moments, which are the aha moments that you talk about at work. But they do that through laughter. Laughter is such a great teaching tool. There’s so much science that proves that laughter is a way to lower stress levels, lower cortisol, and help us connect with each other in a deeper, more meaningful way. That’s how we teach.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (06:02):

Any time it seems that more laughter is better, there’s always lots of reasons to be stressed out or to be worrying about different things. Laughter, more of that is always better, I think, and encouraging that as you start working with clients and with these organizations and people that are involved, one of the things I’m thinking about is, you’d mentioned, you can train on specific topics or specific things that are important to that organization. Talk through how you are able to use improv in teaching some of these tricks. Maybe give us an example or two of what that might look like.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (06:39):

We call them power skills, and we have 10 different offerings that we use and it’s based off of what we heard teams and people need help with. Anything from team building, effective communication, leadership, thinking quickly on your feet, presentation skills, networking, taking initiative, creative risks. We have an intern program, we have a sales program for sales leaders. We have a vision-setting program. However, here’s how we do this. It’s professional development. It’s literally tried and true. I always say this. We’re improvisers, but everything we do is super planned. We actually have pre-work that we send to people before we come in. Any participant in the workshop gets this video. It’s a two- to three-minute video. It’s actually comedic. It uses our team, and it shows you how not to do the soft skill, aka a power skill, that we’re there to teach you on.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (07:32):

Then we get information from the participant. What do they want to know specifically about the power skill they’re there to learn about? Let’s say this is a team who’s having a really hard time communicating in this hybrid workforce. They’re struggling because they’re not in the office together all the time. What do you want to learn more about? When it comes to communication, what are your biggest challenges? Then we take that data and we match it with the data we get from the client who set up this workshop. We do a live session, either in person or virtually. That involves a very, very connected workshop that literally is built to go from a low-risk activity to a high-risk activity. By activity, it could be like a partner activity. It could be group work, but the participants are the workshop. They are engaged in play from start to finish.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (08:25):

We are the facilitators of that play. We’re doing these activities to drive back to the overarching objective of each workshop. Then every workshop we have has a three-week e-learning course built in conjunction with it that reinforces what we taught in the session and in the live session and adds a new learning element. It sounds like it’s, “Oh, just come in and play.” Improv games, but there’s so much more behind it, and it’s really methodical and actually very planned from an improviser perspective because we have super strong objectives that we want to make sure we’re hitting on and that people walk away with.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (09:08):

It’s interesting how you’re talking about improvising. Something made up in the moment and also being planned. It’s a very interesting balance. Behind the scenes, definitely, I guess, a pun intended there, you have come prepared with an understanding of the objective, what you’re trying to accomplish, and then helping focus the attention of the participants, the actors, so that they understand and can get out of the message what you’re looking to do. That leads me to another quick question about the participants and just maybe give a couple case studies about a client or two because if I’m listening in as a business leader of my company or founder of an organization, I might be thinking, “It sounds like it could be fun.” Like a team-building thing. But what really comes out of this, this sounds like you had mentioned soft skills. We call them power, but it sounds like a soft skill. How do we quantify this or measure this? I’d imagine you run into that from time to time. Talk through that a little bit.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (10:08):

Tom, I got you. First and foremost, that’s exactly right. We want to measure participant behavior after. What we do is we get super clear with a client in the first sales call, we call it the discovery call. What are your challenges? What are you hoping to achieve? Out of our 10 power skill training workshops, we can usually narrow down. If we don’t have anything, we’re super honest, but out of the 10, there is usually a fit that’s going to fit with your need and your objective. Then we, through the course of the live session, make sure that we are hitting that objective. We always say we don’t measure ROI. Because it’s a power skill, it’s really hard to quantify. We say we measure ROO, the return on your objective, and through that, what you’ll see is more higher levels of collaboration, more problem solving, less problems, and the e-learning course is really the follow-up.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (11:07):

It’s the, “Okay, we’ve had this great live session. Let’s take what we did in person virtually and let’s drive it home.” We give leaders tips and tricks on how to engage with their team as they’re going through the course. The live session, though, is really the bulk, the meat, and potatoes of this because it’s that connection, it’s that experience. You mentioned a case study. I’ve got to tell you one, Tom. This is good. This happened recently, actually in January of this year. We had a client, and it was a consulting firm, a huge consulting firm in Chicago, 100 people from the Chicago office. The person who hired us was the leader of this 100-person team. First time they had gotten back together in person, and a lot of them worked remotely in over two years due to COVID.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (11:58):

This leader was so scared for this. He kept saying, “I’m going to lose my job.” He ended joking but literally was terrified because he had a fear of improv himself, but his team said, “This is going to be awesome. We need something like this.” A past client of ours had recommended us to him. He trusted this client and said, “All right, if they liked it, maybe we will.” I’m telling you, I held his hand through this entire process, multiple meetings, because I wanted him to know, I’ve got your back. I’m going to make sure that you look at, that my job is to make sure that you are getting what you want out of this and also make sure that your team is getting what you want out of this. The workshop itself was team-building because they had to establish trust. That was the one specific skill they wanted to work on.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (12:46):

New people had been hired, lots of new hires over the course of the two years, and again, they hadn’t all been together in person. 20 minutes into this session, I see this leader just turned from stiff and scared to, we use the chicken dance in our workshops, chicken dancing. All 100 consultants were in it from start to finish. As soon as he saw this group let go, put down this hypothetical mask that they’ve been wearing and connect with each other, he was able to do it too.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (13:21):

At the end of the workshop, he gave me a hug. He said, “I should have never been scared.” He’s written so many testimonials for us because it’s just this beautiful case study of letting go, essentially, of your own fears, knowing what’s best for your team, and allowing your team this opportunity to connect. And he got so much more than team building out of that session. He got core memories. You and I were talking earlier about our kids. I always think about core memories for my son. This memory, these workshops, are core memories because they’re feelings and moments that you could never get back, and they’re so impactful because of the way it makes you feel. You just walk in a group of 100 individuals. This group walked out a cohesive ensemble of 100 people.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (14:11):

Sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing that. One thing that came to mind as you were talking about COVID and so on and the fact that we’re doing this interview over a video screen, how have you done this? Or can you do this remotely? Is that feasible, or do you have to be in person? I was just thinking about that.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (14:30):

That is a great question because, Tom, guess what? In January of 2020, I would’ve told you it cannot be done virtually. When forced to do so by the universe and a global pandemic, guess what? It can work, and it will be just as impactful as in person. In 2020, this was truly one of the biggest mishaps. I know it’s a big thing on the show because it rocked me. The pandemic rocked this business. We were a completely in-person business. We had e-learning courses built in conjunction with the workshops, but they can’t stand alone. They’re built with the workshop. We had nothing. We had to pivot everything to a virtual format because Zoom has breakout rooms, and now WebEx and other platforms have these breakout rooms. We were able to still do our activities and partners or groups. We had to modify several things, and we were able to use the chat function for call and response.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (15:29):

If it was a smaller group, people would come on and off mute, but they’re still super interactive on camera the entire time and in and out of breakout rooms about nine times. Also, through the pandemic, we created a new revenue stream, which I never thought possible. We created the Uber of laughter for your team meetings. They’re called Laugh Breaks, and they were actually featured in Forbes in 2020. Basically, because I have these 22 hilarious improv professionals, I said to myself, while I’m sitting in Zoom after Zoom all day, these hilarious comedians are sitting at home. How can we marry these two corporate America and these comedians? Literally, within 48 hours, two days, you can book on our website a Laugh Break for your team meeting, and we will do short-form improv entertainment, pure entertainment for your team for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or 45 minutes.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (16:28):

We have dialed up for 100 of these. But in the pandemic, this was huge, especially during the holidays. People love this because it’s team-building. You’re laughing, you’re connecting. There’s no educational component to this, but the edutainment component just made people so happy. Again, it was that connectivity that we were missing so much at that time. The pandemic, what could have been the end, actually became the beginning of our story, and we had already been in business for six years now, going on nine. It was the biggest hardship, but the biggest blessing.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (17:09):

Incredible. This is a great transition point. Just to transition to the same questions we ask every guest before they go, is there another miss you had thought of sharing, or was that the primary one just to talk through?

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (17:21):

Tom, I don’t know if it gets harder than that. Honestly, I had a conversation earlier today. I was talking to somebody, and we were like, “If you could get through the past three years as a business owner, especially one whose business was completely in person, you can do anything.” Truly, that was a crash course in resilience for me. Pivot after pivot after pivot.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (17:42):

How about a highlight or two? You’ve shared a few, but just a make or two that you’d like to showcase?

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (17:48):

This is just one of the best stories. We actually were able to work with a former president, and we were able to work with their foundation. I’m hesitant to say it’s not political. It was just, we were able to work with a former president and literally train professionals and citizens 18 to 24 with our methodology, and we actually got to meet him, and a team member of mine actually got interviewed by him on stage for about five minutes. This team member of mine, her name is Jenna. She had started off as an intern, was one of the shyest, most timid individuals. After that experience, I was like Amy Poehler in Mean Girls, where she has the video camera and I was taping the whole time. I was literally witnessing Jenna’s life change before her eyes. So from that experience, she gained the confidence to know that she can do anything.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (18:54):

This isn’t about the president. This story is actually about Jenna and her evolution into the woman she now is. She’s been with Improve It! Six years, going on seven. She’s our director of client experience. She went from the most shy, timid intern to the most confident professional and business leader. She runs the training side of my business. We always say, if you can stand on stage for 15 minutes and get grilled by a former president, you can do anything, and she can. She’s Improve It!. I literally watched her life, personally and professionally, change by applying the methodologies that we teach and by also just believing that she could do it. A big part of what we teach too, is bravery and confidence.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (19:46):

Incredible. What an incredible story in transformation, and talk about the size of magnitude of being in that moment. That’s incredible. One of the other questions we ask is, “Have you had used a multiplier to grow yourself, your business in any form or fashion?”

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (20:04):

1000%. Everybody’s like, “I have a morning routine.” I literally do, and I live and swear by it. I don’t mean that from this cheesy cliche answer. I’m a huge believer that we have to fill ourselves up before we can pour into our teams, into our clients. For a long time, I didn’t do this. I actually was the opposite. I would give to everybody, especially in the morning, before I gave to myself. Flipping that on its head, putting water into my own tea kettle so I can pour into others’ cups changed everything in how I show up.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (20:43):

I wake up every morning at 5:00 AM. I take an ice plunge. I’m just kidding. I don’t do that. I wake up, it’s around 6:15, 6:30, like a normal person, and I go to the gym, I meditate, and I give myself an hour to an hour and a half by myself. That hour and a half is crucial. If I don’t do it, I cannot show up as the leader I want to be and know I can be. I can’t show up as the parent that I want to be to my son. I’m a huge believer. My multiplier has been multiplying time for myself because if I don’t give to this machine, no one else is going to get what they need or deserve.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (21:26):

Thank you for sharing that. The final question, Erin, that we ask every guest is, “What does success mean to you?”

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (21:34):

I struggle with this question a lot because it really does mean freedom to me. Freedom to decide who I want to work with, freedom to decide what we’re going to put into the world, freedom to decide how we’re going to do that. To me, the biggest gift of being an entrepreneur has been the gift of using my voice for good. So with that comes this notion of freedom, and through that freedom, self-awareness has really been born. That’s really success to me as being aware enough to realize what I want and having the freedom to do it.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (22:27):

Phenomenal. As we bring this to a close, is there anything you are hoping to share or get across that you haven’t had a chance to yet?

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (22:35):

I think it really is this idea of putting effort and energy into ourselves first. I really strongly believe in that message. I went through a really big year of burnout post-pandemic, and actually a lot of so much burnout that it led to chronic pain. Through that pain, I had to really do a lot of self-healing, a lot of self-discovery. My message is, if you are a leader, an entrepreneur, you lead teams of people, and today you have not given to yourself first. You have not put energy into you. Give yourself that gift because you’re not going to show up in any way, shape, or form for anybody in your life without giving to yourself first. Self-care is not selfish. Rest is productive. That is really the message that I want to drive home. I actually have a cool thing for your listeners. If you’re interested, Tom, I could share it because it’s a quiz about their wellness avatar.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (23:39):

I would love it. Absolutely.

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (23:42):

I’ll send you the link here. You can even go on our website, and it’ll pop up. It’s literally a quiz that you take to find out how well you take care of yourself as a leader, and then your answers will provide you with your wellness avatar. There’s five different avatars that we’ve identified. So there’s the indifferent, the CEO. I feel like we’ll have a lot of CEOs from this show, but literally, it gives you this avatar, and then it gives you improv techniques, daily rituals, and energy boosters to make sure that you’re giving to yourself first before you’re giving into others. Once you identify your avatar, you get sent this Play Your Way Into Wellness workbook, and all of that will be there for you as a resource. It is completely free, and it is an awesome tool my team put together. I did not. That is so insightful into how we show up for ourselves.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (24:40):

Thank you. How can people get in touch with you, learn more about what you’re doing, learn more about your company? Where can they go to gather some information?

Erin Diehl, Improve It! (24:49):

Our website is learntoimproveit.com, and you can go there, and the quiz will pop up as well. Check out the Improve It! podcast time. We’ve got a podcast too, and it’s fun, and we use improv to show you how to do all the stuff. Then LinkedIn is really a big spot for me. Erin Diehl, the only Erin Diehl, at Improve It!. Then keepinitrealdiehl on Instagram. That’s D-I-E-H-L.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (25:17):

Erin, thank you so much for a fantastic interview, and let’s go ahead and jump into today’s three key takeaways. Takeaway number one is when Erin talked about improv training, having the ability to create an environment to build power skills for your team and organization. That improv training creates a core memory where you blend a great experience with great feelings and emotions that come along with that. Takeaway number two is when Erin shared about how she created Laugh Breaks in a time of need and how popular it had been during the COVID shutdowns and such when people were doing lots and lots of Zoom meetings. By the way, we’re still doing lots and lots of Zoom meetings, and when you need a break, whether in the office or virtual, these Laugh Breaks sound great.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (26:09):

There’s no gain in this for me as promoting this. I just think it sounds like a lot of fun. I know it’s something we’re actually going to try with our company. Takeaway number three is when she shared about watching the growth of one of her own team members and how she was able to see the transformation in her team member from being a little shy, little reserved to having the opportunity and being totally comfortable to have a moment on a stage where she was doing improv with a former president. I thought that was pretty exciting, and she was able to watch that grow. Now it’s time for today’s win-win.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (26:54):

Today’s win-win is when Erin shared how you need to put energy into yourself first and then into others. The best way to be the best leader for your team is to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself as the leader in addition to your team. It’s not that one is over the other. It’s just finding balance, or whatever that phrase might be, but making sure that you’re having some self caring. For her, what she did is, she created a morning routine that helped multiply her growth and development.

Dr. Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (27:31):

That’s the episode today, folks. Please make sure you subscribe to the podcast and give us a review. Remember, if you or anyone might be ready to franchise your business or take their franchise company to the next level, please connect with us at bigskyfranchiseteam.com. Thanks for tuning in, and we look forward to having you back next week.

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