Guest Blog: Challenges for health promotion practice in the digital age

Working in health promotion is tough. With so many skilled practitioners, job hunting is competitive and job security is increasingly hard to find. Have you seen a permanent health promotion job advertised lately?

Health promoters need to be skilled at working with multiple stakeholders, keep up to date with best practice, and continually chip away to improve policy and environments. It can take decades to see population health changes. Of course there are lots of rewards, from seeing communities thrive, achieving positive and meaningful engagement and making huge differences to the world that negate the need for ‘miracle cures’ and expensive treatments that consume government health budgets.

The challenges and rewards of working in health promotion have not really changed over time. But as we move more and more into a digital age, what are the emerging challenges for health promotion practice?

As a reader of the Research Connect blog, there’s a good chance you are a researcher rather than practitioner. If so, as you read on keep in mind what role you think researchers can play to generate the evidence that supports practitioners in relation to the outlined issues.

I believe the challenges for health promotion practitioners in the digital age are as follows:

Professional development and competencies. Understanding how to apply social media to health promotion practice can require a new set of skills. When it comes to use in health promotion, social media expertise is often borrowed from, or outsourced to disciplines such as communications, public relations or marketing rather than from practitioners themselves. Whilst the current health promotion competencies touch upon technology, they do not incorporate the seismic shift in communication that web 2.0 technologies and social media have introduced.

Comparison paralysis. When you consider that Coca-Cola has more likes on Facebook than Harry Potter, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, and that there is a tweet a second made directly to McDonalds, it’s easy for health promotion programs to get sucked into believing that they need to compete with the private sector. It is unrealistic to think that small scale health promotion programs can compete with the resources of the private sector. That said, health promotion programs should choose social media strategies that are consistent with their populations/target groups and in line with their overall program objectives.

Finding evidence. Social media platforms and their nuances change frequently, much faster than traditional research cycles. How are practitioners meant to know how and what they should be doing health promotion work using social media if evidence can’t keep up? The answer may lie in social media! It’s really important that practitioners who are using social media work together to share their experiences, lessons and findings. The Australian Health Promotion Association in several jurisdictions offer online groups via LinkedIn or Facebook which create a great opportunity for professionals to exchange advice and ask questions.

Lure of social media as a tool for behaviour change. One of my key messages is that social media is another tool in a health promotion practitioner’s toolbox. Remember, a tool is just that and it should not be a case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’. With shareables, images and quotes being popular content on social media, it’s tempting to piggy-back on this trend and use social media purely as an intervention tool for behaviour change and promotion of social marketing messages. It’s important to think about how social media could be used for broader health promotion objectives, including creating new cultural norms. Organisations like GetUp and Obesity Policy Coalition are experts at this. Similarly there are some fantastic examples of promoting positive mental health and reducing mental illness stigma on social media.

Despite these new challenges, health promoters are a resilient and resourceful lot. With the support of research institutes and knowledge brokers, I am confident that there will be a growing baseline of technology literacy and competency in the health promotion workforce.

Given the range of challenges, how do you think researchers can generate evidence and support practitioners? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Written by Kristy Schirmer

Kristy Schirmer worked as health promotion practitioner for more than a decade prior to starting Zockmelon, a consultancy that focuses on health promotion and social media strategy.

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Is PowerPoint dead? No but your presentation just might be!

Important health warning:

Have you ever been presenting at a seminar or conference and noticed your audience exhibiting one or more of the following symptoms?

  • Constant yawning
  • Slumping in their chair
  • Excessive mobile phone texting, tweeting and/or Facebooking
  • Sleeping, and in some cases snoring
  • In the worst case scenario, not even showing up at all

If you answered yes to one or more of these symptoms, your audience is exhibiting Soporific Seminar Syndrome (SSS). This is a very serious yet common disorder with one in five people in Australia suffering from it. The scary part is YOU may be the cause of this!

But how you ask? Your research is interesting, you are a great presenter and use more than one tone in your voice, you have accompanying slides… so why are you making your audience suffer?

Well luckily, I’m here to help!

Researchers have discovered the reason for SSS is Poorly Designed PowerPoint Presentations (or PDPPP). Luckily the condition can be reversed with a straightforward treatment – effective design. Please follow these simple tips so together we can rid the world of SSS.

1. Cut down on clutter

It is a common misconception presenters have that they need to put EVERY single word they are saying into their PowerPoint presentation. If it’s not every single word, it’s lines and lines of dot points. Your audience is trying to listen to you and read your slides at the same time. They are going to get distracted and confused if you have too much information and your slides are too cluttered. It’s even worse if you flick through your slides so quickly, they don’t even finish reading! Solution, cut down on the clutter. Chose one dot point that complements what you are talking about and stick with that! Better still use a photo. Your audience will have your full attention, and hopefully better understand and absorb what you are speaking about.


2. Use large readable words

This point goes hand in hand with the last. There is no point having small text that people won’t be able to see at the back of the room. Instead of losing their attention, lose the clutter and write with large readable words. The text below is size 18 compared to size 90. As a rule of thumb, never go under size 24 pt.


3. Pick the right colours

Colours that look good on your computer screen don’t always look effective on the big screen. Avoid using light colours on a white background and vise versa. Use contrasting colours for your background and text and avoid using more than 4-5 colours in total. If in doubt, stick with the basics – black and white! Finally, if you have the facilities, go and test your presentation on the projector.


4. Maximise the use of photos.

I can’t stress this point enough. Do as the late Steve Jobs would of done.

Have you ever watched one of his presentations and seen the screen full of dot point and sentences? No. He uses one image to illustrate exactly what he is talking about. And it’s memorable!


Image curiosity of

If you do intend to use photos, don’t crop it and place it in the corner, squeezed in amongst your dot points, maximize its use. Make it a full screen image and incorporate minimal text around it, if at all.


5. Use simple fonts.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Steer away from detailed and fancy fonts. They look messy and cluttered on screen and make it harder for your audience to read. Stick with a sans serif font like Gill Sans, Geneva or Arial to name a few.


One last piece of advice, if you want your audience to engage more, set up a hashtag (for example #endingSSS) and encourage people to tweet with the hashtag during your seminar. People will be engaged (and not falling asleep), asking questions and promoting your research and research program.   

This special concoction of remedies will hopefully ameliorate the symptoms of SSS, acting through the PDPPP pathway. By eradicating Poorly Designed PowerPoint Presentations we will be free to live in a world where all presentations are engaging, enabling us to be inspired by our new learnings and tackle some real life health issues!


Written by Alana Pirrone-Savona
Media & Communications Officer for the Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program
The University of Melbourne


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On the conference circuit – from Melbourne to Thailand and back again

In an academic work environment you could say that one of the ‘perks’ is representing your work, or collaborative work, at academic and topic-focused conferences (However in comparison to my days working in the private health industry, business travel in the University signals a more economically responsible mode, namely frequenting the back of the plane rather than the upper deck on long haul flights!). This year has been no exception for me, being fortunate to attend a range of conferences on topics of public health, health promotion, knowledge translation and exchange, and obesity prevention.

So we pack our bags, roll up our posters and prepare our presentation slides at the eleventh hour – but what for? What motivates researchers and practitioners to scramble to find funding so we can run laps of the conference circuit? What benefit does our research and its end-users gain from us attending these forums?

Recently I attended with colleagues what might be considered seminal conferences in public health research/practice/policy: The World conference on Health Promotion by the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE) – in Pattaya, Thailand, followed by the Public Health Association of Australia annual conference – in Melbourne. We’ve also attended emerging conferences in our field of interest: The “FUSE 2nd Conference on Knowledge Exchange in Public Health: How to get practice into science” – in Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands; and the “2nd Annual NHMRC research translation symposium: from Bench to Bourke” – in Sydney. Note the similar style of the long-winded titles on the last two conferences on knowledge translation… For people interested in communicating and doing ‘real world’ research, you’d think we’d have more succinct event titles!

Aside from enjoying a working week near a sandy beach or among fields of tulips, I believe that conference attendances (and active participation obviously) are a necessary perk if we want our research to be useful and utilised, and if we want to link our ideas to a broader national and international dialogue. At these conferences, I took away a few points about the issues being explored and debated, as well as some reflections on what we gain from attending, and thus what we offer as research practitioners. Here’s a wrap-up, fresh from my suitcase.

Salient issues that resonated for me as a conference participant:

  1. Social justice concerns are high on the agenda in public health and health promotion.
    All the policy, practice and research communities represented at theses conferences appear to be very dedicated to chipping away at the systemic barriers to attainment of good health. Good thing.
  2.  Public health and health promotion decision-makers, advocates and researchers need to better articulate what we do, and what good it does.
    What is public health and health promotion anyway? Sure, we all know that the sum of our parts is more than water sanitation and quit-smoking campaigns, but try explaining that to a new acquaintance at a backyard barbeque. And what are the benefits of investing Government dollars in preventive health? Can anyone tell me the economic return on investment of health promotion partnership meetings, or the productivity gains from banning junk-food ads in kids TV viewing hours? Either way, a strong theme that continued to emerge for me was the sheer lack of public outrage when public health research funds are cut, or when a health promotion unit is shut down.
  3. Working across sectors means singing from the same song-sheet.
    I often go to conferences realising that I’m preaching to the converted. It’s not a new concept that public health and health promotion decision-makers need to be working with other sectors like planning, transport and education – this message has continued to come through, but more focused on tweaking our agendas and language, to make it easier to work together. Finding processes to allow cross-sectoral work are getting more focus too – like embedding health impact assessments into local government’s power. We might be a long way away from that but in the meantime we can at least coordinate the message.
  4. We keep on with research to know that we are doing the right things, and doing things fairly.
    Not all of the conferences I went to had an ‘academic’ or scholarly focus, but thankfully, I walked away from each and every session knowing that the majority of attendees valued the role of research and evaluation, rigorous methods, or evidence-informed decision-making – all of this is achieved by furthering research and academic inquiry.
  5. It takes specific skills to advocate, and without advocacy, our concerns won’t be heard.
    Like me, you might not always feel comfortable with the term advocacy so let’s call it leadership, or whatever you like – either way, see points #2 and #3 above. We need to find smarter ways of communicating evidence and knowledge to influence decision-making.
  6. We all love a framework!
    I think every conference session I went to had a ‘framework’, ‘model’ or ‘tool’ which was ‘guiding’ or ‘underpinning’ or ‘informing’ their approach. Hopefully this is more than jargon, and actually means rigor and systematic ways of conceptualising and working – whether you’re in research, practice, or somewhere in between. So I think it’s a good thing, as long as we don’t get lost in translation!

What I think we gain and can offer from active participation at conferences:

  1. Disseminating research and practice.
    This is an obvious benefit, and the one most often used by conference organisers to lure you into spending $900 of your precious budget to be out of the office for two days, subjected to death-by-powerpoint, and forced to catch up on all your emails late at night after the welcome reception. But in order to ‘keep it real’ and stay connected to the broader health and wellbeing dialogue, attendance and active participation at conferences are actually an efficient way to communicate your work. Ok, so I might not feel that way when I’m standing next to my poster watching conference delegates walk straight past, making a bee-line for the coffee stand without an interest in my glossy artwork and data. But if you’re proactive to network, interact, present and tweet, it really is an chance to build the profile of your/your team’s work, and get others to know who you are and what you do.
  2. Networking and engagement.
    By signing up for conferences, we open ourselves to public scrutiny of our work, and let’s not forget those awkward moments of introducing yourself to that esteemed Professor or Policy-maker who has no idea who you are. But this is almost always a positive outcome. We meet new people with similar passions, discuss different contexts and ways of working, and maybe even score a new collaboration, friend, or new LinkedIn connection. The use of social media is really growing at public health conferences, engaging both participants and those who couldn’t attend in person. I’ve come away from every conference with lots of new follows and followers, which also boosts engagement of the research group and links in our other collaborators.
  3. Broadened thinking, new perspectives.
    Sitting in an early morning plenary deciding what to tweet really makes you think about what you think about the topic. In my early days at conferences I probably didn’t reflect much, and was more focused on staying awake and when the next coffee break was. But as a more experienced practitioner, I find that I am continually thinking, appraising, analysing and reflecting on what’s being said. I ask more questions, and use the breaks to chat (to anyone who’ll listen) about the perspectives emerging at the conference.
  4. Confidence.
    After meeting such a range of different people from different contexts, doing different jobs and working in different ways – you realise that you’re all doing good stuff and sharing the goal to promote public health. It’s a nice confidence boost to have your work verified in an international or national context, and helps you feel like you’re on the right track.
  5.  A break from routine.
    I work in an office, and I can’t say I get regular tea-breaks with cake and tropical fruit, nor am I offered a selection of mini-baguettes for lunch. Conferences are good for this. But I do think it is good to get away from the desk and reflect on your practice within a broader context. I always enjoy catching up with colleagues old and new, who are equally as nerdy and equally keen to get out of the office for a few days. Another emerging trend at conferences which is a very welcome break in a workday routine is tea-break flash-mob dances. Enough said.


Using Social Media in a Research Environment.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water….but before they left, Jack logged onto Facebook to ask his friends where the best well was. Jill tweeted about their upcoming adventure with the hash tag #fetchingwater. They both checked in through their Facebook when they arrived on the hill and shared a photo of #fetchingwater through their Instagram accounts. Then Jack wrote a blog.

These days, it seems most of us can’t go through a day, or a couple of hours in my case, without using some form of social media. According to the Yellow Social Media Report 62% of internet users in Australia have a presence on social networking sites, with Facebook the clear leader. We are using social (social media) to catch up with family and friends, share photos, coordinate social events and one in five of us are using social for commercial purposes by following our favourite brands (Yellow Social Media Report). Given how powerful social is in connecting with others and sharing information, it was only natural that our research program here at The University of Melbourne should be on there!

So in late 2010, we jumped online.

One of our greatest challenges was finding our audience. We are a research only team funded by a philanthropic gift. We have a small number of PhD students but do not do any teaching or have much involvement with students at all. We have a niche research area of child health. Previous to any involvement on social our key outlet for completed research was journal articles, which would be published and circulated through academic contacts. If we were lucky we would get something published in a newspaper maybe once or twice a year. Journalists aren’t typically interested in anything that 1. They have heard before or 2. Doesn’t raise controversy or have an obvious dramatic impact.

So our aim was to firstly make ourselves known, create an online brand and raise awareness of our little program. Once we had done this we wanted to increase our engagement and interactions with our followers.

I have to admit, it hasn’t been all roses and daisies, and we still have a long way to go, but this is what we have learnt.

  1. Social is ALL about engagement. Yes you want to promote your brand but endless self-promotion without generating conversation can push people away. It is absolutely fine to post about projects and people but don’t forget to pose questions, reply to others’ posts, and share similar content. The rule of thumb is 20/80. 20% posting your content, 80% interacting with others. Before you post consider ‘Why do I care and why would they share?’ Search for people talking about you or your content and interact with them!Image
  2. ‘You must entertain in order to educate.’ Not all your content needs to be serious. This point goes hand in hand with point 1. Part of our social media strategy includes about 2-3 ‘fun’ posts related to research per week. Given that much of our audience are academics, this is something they can relate too. Some great examples that have worked for us are PhD comics and regular posts about ‘Why writing a thesis is harder than having a baby’ (Point 1. Three months before your due date, your doctor doesn’t say ‘’I want you to go back and re-do the first trimester’s work”).  It’s funny and when people can relate they like and share. And bingo, you have increased your reach! Any new fan obtained through a ‘fun’ post will be new eyes when the next informative post goes out.Image
    (Image thanks to
  3. Maintain a constant presence. You see, with Facebook’s algorithms, the less you are on Facebook, the less someone interacts with you. The less someone interacts with you, the less likely they will see your content in their news feed. If you are going to invest in social media, make sure you commit. At least 1 post per day (or two).
  4. Create a voice. Give your social a voice. Create a persona. People will relate to you and your content more if they feel it comes from a person and not a robot/machine. The reason we have entered into the blogosphere is to show people our personal side and share with people just why we love our job.  Right now you are learning about my job and the triumphs and tribulations of it. Hopefully this will make you take a look at our social pages too, maybe even our website? If I’m lucky you may just share! Bang, I’ve done my job.
  5. Plan, plan, plan. My final piece of advice is to plan. This way you can keep a constant presence on social without flipping out and resorting to posting nonsense just for the sake of it. Have a conversational calendar that outlines discussion topics for the next few weeks or months. This plan will reduce the burden on staff and they will be approached in advance for material that will be posted. Particular content can be allocated for particular days of the week to maintain consistency. Additional breaking news can be put up as an extra post/tweet.

What kind of content has worked for us? Photos of staff, project and participants (make sure you have consent!), short videos, ‘fun’ posts (as previously discussed), tips from PhD students, expert perspective, upcoming seminars, and conferences and publications.

Be prepared. Have a thick skin. Respond to everyone. Delete spam.

So don’t view social as a challenging hill to climb. Be like our modern day Jack and Jill. Use social as a means to an end. There is very little danger that you will fall down and break your crown – and if you do you can tweet for a doctor: #crackedskull

Written by Alana Pirrone-Savona
Media & Communications Officer for the Jack Brockhoff Child Health & Wellbeing Program
The University of Melbourne