02/18/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Gaining Confidence to Be Heard - Always Ask a Question (Part 2)

Gloria Steinem said, "The most important thing we can do as women is speak up in meetings." Asking questions is directly connected to that philosophy. Part of the problem that keeps women from rising through the ranks, attaining seats on boards, being elected to office and starring in roles that break stereotypes, is that we are not seen and heard enough. Yes! It's getting better and we are in a time of incredible growth. But until we earn the same as men, hold half the positions of leadership and power in the world, and can be who we are without backlash -- we need to speak up more, even during the Q&A.

In Part 1 of this discussion, we explored the personal benefits of asking questions of speakers. Let's look at even deeper ways to gain more confidence.

What if I Mess Up?
Fear of failure -- that's got to be the No. 1 reason people don't ask. What if everyone laughs at me? What if the speaker doesn't understand or can't answer me? Here are a few thoughts to keep you on track:

  • Audiences are inherently on your side -- they don't want you to tank, they want you to do well! If you stumble a little, or seem nervous, their hearts will immediately go out to you. Everyone in the audience is dying to hear an insightful question, so that they too, can benefit from the answer.
  • You are allowed to gather yourself. If the speaker engages you in conversation rather than just answering, you have the right to breathe, nod, pause and think. You don't have to answer right away. A new employee of a 35,000-person firm recently had a chance to ask the CEO a question. He was visibly nervous. The CEO asked him a question instead! We in the audience were all so impressed -- he took many seconds to breathe, looked down to think, cleared his throat and answered honestly. It was really well done.
  • Give yourself a pass. Yep, you may screw up. You may blank and forget your question and have to sit down. You may stutter or giggle or have your voice shake. It's OK! Everyone tanks at least once in their life. The important part is, you did it. You stood up and tried. And the next time will be easier, and the time after that, even easier.
Filling the Air with Nothing - Why It's Critical to Ask a Good Question I have to balance my desire to connect with a speaker in any way possible, with the understanding that asking a useless question is worse than staying seated. I'm not saying this to scare you! I want you to speak up. However, please consider a few categories of useless air:
  • Distasteful self-promotion -- there's nothing worse than someone asking a question just so that they'll have a chance to promote themselves or a product in someone else's venue. The absolute worst version I've seen was in a coaching forum. A well-known coach was sharing her methods with a room of entrepreneurs, and potential clients for her. A woman got up and didn't even ask a question, she just said, "You've made me so excited about the great work I'm doing in MY coaching business! I'm going to pass out my fliers to everyone now," and proceeded to pull out a stack. The speaker handled it really well, and citing time constraints, asked the woman to put her fliers at the back, rather than interrupting the Q&A. Do you think anyone picked up a flier? Heck no. We were appalled by the questioner's lack of professionalism. Now I'd be lying if I told you all my motives for speaking up were entirely altruistic. But I reserve my self-promotion to the acceptable introduction, "Hi, my name is Karen Hough and I'm the Founder of ImprovEdge." That's it. Always remember to say your name and position. It lets people know that you are legitimate and the speaker appreciates it.
  • Using different words to repeat a question that's already been asked. If someone steals your thunder, concede and sit down. Or better yet, have a couple of questions ready so that you can stay up!
  • Asking for information that was covered in the speech. Duh. Listen and delve for new insight.
  • Asking a question that is so personal and narrow that it is only about your problem, and not the larger issues of the forum. Although it's exciting to have a shot at a celebrity, trying to pull the speaker into dealing with a complicated personal issue is selfish -- think about whether or not your question will benefit some of the other people in the forum as well. Caveat: some speakers invite very personal questions, such a financial planner I saw. He did all the work of taking a specific question, answering it, and turning it into a lesson for the crowd. Brilliant -- just don't expect every speaker to be able to do that kind of work.

So come on -- take a shot. Speak up and ask a question, even if you're terrified. You can do it, and something great will come from it.

Karen Hough, CEO of ImprovEdge, is a bestselling Amazon author, and winner of the Stevie International Award for Most Innovative Business of the Year. Look for her upcoming book "Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over."