There’s been a lot of chatter of late about the “death of expertise.” But to hear experimental psychologist Bruce M. Hood tell it, there may be a “dearth of expertise,” at least when it comes to scientists speaking publicly. “I think people are intrinsically interested. They’re curious,” he says, and so three years ago Hood founded Speakezee, an effort to give the people what they want.
Speakezee was born out of Hood’s own trajectory as an accidental (then intentional – for more on his spooky specialty we recommend this Social Science Bites podcast) public intellectual and the impact of giving one of The Royal Institution’s much-loved Christmas lectures. Both experiences taught him that there was a public hunger for real science information, and not just at the BBC-broadcast level.
But let’s go back to the Christmas lecture, an annual tradition on the BBC, that Hood gave in 2011. It was well-enough received that the psychologist started fielding invitations to place like Japan and Singapore, far from his academic home at the University of Bristol. “There came more and more opportunities [to speak],” he recalls. “Of course, a lot of schools and interest groups asking me, ‘Can you come give a talk?’ I realized I certainly couldn’t be everywhere at once.
“This is where Speakezee was born, out of a sense of providing a platform that enables people who want to broaden or engage with audiences to profile themselves.” And it allows audiences, sometimes quite local ones, to seek out just who they want to speak to them from among those profiles. As this article was posted, Speakezee had roughly 2,100 experts ready to talk and so far had fielded more than 2,000 invitations for these people to speak.
“You give academics an opportunity, and they’ll quite happily talk about their research,” Hood explains. “… Of course, this fits very well with the growing interest in public engagement and the fact universities should be seen to be giving back their civic responsibilities.”
What is Speakezee, and what isn’t it? You could call it an online speaker’s bureau, and its website describes it as “the world’s largest searchable database of expert speakers.” But since both academics and the curious have self-selected and signaled their interest, and since Speakezee brokers the relationship, you might think of it as more of an experts’ eHarmony. Hood even uses a relationship metaphor in his tagline: “Putting experts back at the heart of society.”Of course there are already organizations and platforms trying to link experts with the public, whether in the media (e.g. Help a Reporter Out), university public affairs and community outreach programs, online databases of names, and the modern-day lecture circuit (ever hear of TED?).
“Yes, every university will typically have a list of experts, a directory of experts, a PR team, public engagement officers, and they typically have schools outreach officers who are also doing this exact sort of job,” says Hood. “What I’ve come to realize is that whilst that’s admirable, and it’s one way of doing it, there’s something to be said about enabling the audiences and the organizers to do that process as well … By having a searchable database, it enables, empowers organizers who have niche interests or niche groups to go and find the local expert.
The platform also partners with organizations that tread similar but not identical ground, such as Soapbox Science, I’m a Scientist – Get Me Out of Here, and Pint of Science, which can serve as recruiting grounds for experts who want to share their research. Hood has given his own share of (organized) pub talks, and that served as the inspiration for the platform’s punny name. “The word Speakezee, of course, comes out of the illegal drinking dens that used to exist. That’s where I started off doing a lot of my public engagement, in the back of pubs.”
The pub aspect also informs Speakezee’s interactive focus. Its goal is to foster dialog, not host a lecture. “I’ve always tried to encourage people not to think of it as a lecture, per se, but more as an opportunity to have that conversation.” Speakezee also values intimacy, so a classroom visit is taken just as serious as a public auditorium. Currently, through partner the British Neuroscience Association, Speakezee is seeking to identify patient and support groups, such as for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, that are hungry for qualified neuroscientists who can answer their questions.
Harnessing the desire of the speakers to reach out is a hallmark of Speakezee, Hood says. This “puts all the onus on the speaker, the academic, to curate their content and keep it updated and to put out whatever they want to do. Whereas websites, universities, press offices, whatever, that’s all driven centrally. By spreading out that load, delegating if you like, to the actual people who deliver the content, I think that’s a much better way of doing that.”
As the Speakezee website explains, “The more complete the speaker profile, the more likely you will be contacted by an organiser. List a talk you can give or have given in the past. Add materials you might want to share – papers, slides, videos or even a Soundcloud podcast.”
The span of speakers is broad, with criminologists rubbing shoulders with mathematicians, and artists with archaeologists. The platform allows those looking for speakers to filter by geography, expertise (a proxy for discipline), academic qualifications (all speaker must have at least a degree) and audience. While its heaviest penetration is in the United Kingdom and Italy (where it’s known as Chiaroxtutti, for ‘knowledge for all), at the time of this interview it had profiles from experts in 32 countries. Hood especially wants to grow Speakezee in North America.
This filtering allows the group seeking a speaker to zero in on the nuances of complex topics. “When you take complex topics, very often there will be different perspectives, which have relevance bearing upon it. What a platform like Speakezee can do is that you can literally put in a search term … topic in there, and what you will find is that people from different disciplines, regardless of an area of interest that nobody would search for. I find the multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary opportunities there as very useful.”
Now Hood is looking to the future. He started Speakezee from proceeds of his own book sales, and it still operates with a skeleton staff of himself, his grad students and some interns. If you’re a state-run school the service is free and if you’re a Fortune 500 company it’s not (and Speakezee only gets a sort of agent’s fee). In talking to Hood, it’s clear that he’s not obsessed by the finances, but he’s not blind to them, either. “I didn’t want to be beholden to investors to grow suddenly very rapidly without figuring out what is it that we’re doing and who are our main users or clients,” he says. “I think now we’re three years in, it’s quite clear to me that the demand is very real.”
And so his real goal is capitalizing on that, and not on capital.
“I’d like the powers that be in the higher education sector to recognize the value of a platform that reaches beyond the gates of their university and why that is potentially not just a measure for social ]mobility, but actually an engine for innovation and drive. That’s what I’d like. [And] yes, more speakers. Yes, more audiences. Matching that is always going to be a tricky issue, but I think getting them on the system is probably the priority first. If people are at least creating a profile on Speakezee, it’s a very succinct way of saying, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I like to talk about. I’m available if you want me.’ I suppose that’s the priority. Once you have this population of people, then I think it’s going to be quite straightforward to find them the audiences.”