02/05/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Always Ask a Question: The Importance of Speaking Up

Would you believe I've had personal conversations with such luminaries as Jane Fonda, Gwen Ifill, Jeremy Irons and Suze Orman? That's right -- tiny, intimate conversations. All because I got up at a microphone and asked a question.

Whether in a small meeting or in a huge auditorium, the moment I hear, "Any questions?" I bolt for the microphone or raise my hand. Why? I may never have a chance again in my life to speak one on one with this amazing person. The opportunity is just too delicious! Asking a question is a way to engage with important people, practice the art of speaking in a public forum, and find out things that are never published or covered on talk shows. And it builds your personal brand as someone who is confident and curious.

And let's be honest: My impetus to get up and forget the butterflies in my stomach has had unforeseen benefits. Such as: I signed a year-long partnership that yielded a huge amount of business. I had been at a speech by a CEO of a consulting business in Baltimore. I asked a question about his corporate structure, and when I reached out six months later to discuss a partnership, he remembered me from that question. We signed a deal in short order.

I got to be in a small room with Beth Mooney, the only female CEO of a Top 20 U.S. bank. When they asked for questions, there was a moment of silence. Are you kidding?! An open opportunity to ask the most powerful woman in banking about her opinions, and nobody was moving. I only let about five seconds pass before I stepped up. She answered my question and then some -- eloquently and personally. I still think about her answer at times when I'm reading my morning WSJ. There were several questions after mine, but by opening up the session, I was noticed by her staff. They thanked me for asking a "great question." Why? How would you like to bend over backwards to arrange a special event for the CEO and have the whole room go shy? They were really worried for a moment that there might be that awkward silence and terribly relieved when I spoke up.

Gaining Confidence

My current favorite moment in questioning just happened in Boston. I got to ask Amy J. C. Cuddy a question. She's an amazing researcher into the physiology of confidence, and I used her research for my next book, Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, due out May 2014). I had this article, and my clients, on my mind! I asked her what she would suggest to people trying to gain the confidence needed to speak up. She gave great advice: baby steps.

-- If you can't bring yourself to ask a question in the first meeting, take a step in that direction. Sit with your back straight, look people in the eye, hold your arms out -- those strong physical stances increase the hormones that allow people to be more confident.

-- The next baby step is practice -- ask a question at a low-risk venue, like a group of friends, or informal discussion with colleagues. Pay attention to how you feel -- do you get nervous, cold, hot or dry-mouthed? That's okay! Once you recognize your personal physical responses to stress, you can manage them, rather than feeling like you have no power over them.

So take a baby step. Hold yourself tall. Frame a question before you even get to the event or meeting. Breathe deeply and step up to the microphone. You can do it!


Karen Hough is the CEO of ImprovEdge,, and the author of the upcoming book Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over" now available for preorder.