Persuasion in Health Promotion – my talk at SMU

My colleague Prema and I gave a talk to final year students at the Singapore Management University (SMU) yesterday. It all started when I bumped into Assoc. Professor Susheela Varghese at Podcamp a few months ago, and told her what we were doing in Health Promotion.
I mentioned we had just launched a new Sexual Wellness website. This was probably intriguing as probably not many people would imagine the Gahmen addressing such issues in a direct way (as with my idea of launching a podcast 2 years ago). Anyway she found our activities interesting enough to invite us to give a presentation to her class, and we took on the challenge!
Me and Prema taking questionsWe expanded our presentation’s scope to include many other health issues and campaigns – some ours, some from other countries – to show how persuasion works for different people. Our focus was generally on the youth market, which is very important but difficult to reach especially for a topic like health. Usually, youths don’t worry about health because they’re in the prime of it, until they fall ill or know someone who’s seriously ill. But habits are often formed during one’s youth and I feel it could be more effective in some cases to focus on providing the know-how and environment to foster healthy habits and relationships then. It takes more effort to change one’s behaviour when one is older.

For some health issues like smoking, smokers may shut out the message especially if it is seen to talk down to them. That topic was discussed passionately among our SMU audience who had different reactions. A few students told us they smoked. One guy mentioned that as he was an occasional (and social) smoker, our smoking ban was working for him because he found it too troublesome to go to the smoking room. The few times he did go, he found the concentrated amounts of smoke overwhelming and was put off by it.
Another issue we covered was whether to use shock tactics to persuade people to change their behaviour. Prema asked the class which smoking campaigns they remembered. The reply was the graphic warnings, starting from several years ago (bleeding brains and other grisly organs) and the more recent campaign involving the woman with mouth cancer. Actually there were a few other smoking campaigns in between, but nobody remembered them.
We did hear the criticism that some campaigns (local and overseas) talked down to the audience. One student said, of course they know smoking and casual sex is bad for health – no need to place an obvious message at the end of the video clip. That insulted their intelligence. However, we asked whether they were the intended target audience in the first place. We showed ads ranging from the grossly obvious to the moderate to the obscure – in fact so obscure that many people in the class didn’t get the punchline. We explained why we didn’t use some creative ideas for our own campaigns – because the message was lost. Persuasion has to be done in context.
Then it was my turn to present the New Media component and I began with the phrase “Communication without talking down” which was my personal mantra. I asked how could we address more stigmatic health issues such as mental health, sexual health and smoking. Often, people who don’t dare to ask questions in person or pick up health materials from the stands, will go online and that is where I come in.
I told them about our Shisha awareness campaign – how Shisha is actually many times more harmful than cigarettes. I noticed quite a few eyebrows raised among the students – they probably didn’t realise it either. To house all the facts and research we had on this matter, we built a Shisha microsite and I submitted it to the search engines. To our pleasant surprise the microsite jumped up to No.2 overall in the Google keyword search for “shisha” (only second to Wikipedia) and No. 1 locally, displacing commercial websites that were promoting the sale of shisha and hookah pipes. Even better – a Singaporean teenage girl saw her friends smoking shisha, did her own research (most likely Google), found our site, and blogged about her discovery. I called this ‘passive persuasion’ – we won’t shove things in your face anymore, but we’re there if you need to find the info.
Another point I made was that we could make things easier for people to spread the word about something, rather than just telling them to ‘do it’ themselves. I showed them how our Flower Power app ([previously blogged about]( helped spread kind words to hundreds of people. (Thanks Shaun, Nick and team for the good work)
I showed them how we’ve changed our strategy over the years and now have a youth health blog and a MediaCorp actress blogging about how she’s quitting smoking. The latter blog has received over 60 comments in just 12 days with a number of commentors saying that she has inspired them to quit as well. One turned to us for help while another actually took action and quit smoking. I also described a forthcoming project that will again encourage open conversation. Later on the students told us they preferred this kind of platform where they were able to give their own feedback, which confirmed our own studies on the matter.
Our young audience looks engaged... phew!I wasn’t too sure how I fared but after watching the video clips taken, it was heartening to see how the students paid attention to what we were saying. There were sceptics but we also saw their point of view and did our best to explain why we did certain things. We know what we do does not always please everybody. It is impossible to do that. Some may be more conservative while others are liberal, in which case a middle stance is not good enough either way. Take sex for example. On one hand, abstinence is the safest way to avoid getting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). But another school of thought says that’s impractical advice because kids are going to do it anyway, and it is better to accept that fact and teach them to use condoms instead. That however would not go down well with conservative parents. You get the idea.
All in all I enjoyed presenting and in case some of you (who’ve seen me present before) are wondering, I smiled and laughed a lot so I didn’t look so fierce. Hopefully, our real-life examples complemented the theories that Susheela taught. Engaging the youth audience is important to us and I hope we did that. At the end of the talk, a few students came forward and spoke with us. As with my talk at RGS in January this year, I was happy to take questions from bright young people who were outspoken and not afraid to voice contrasting opinions. That is a valuable ingredient to a great conversation and I hope we have more such experiences in future.
Making a pointIn a more long-term sense I was also glad that the university students of today were not simply lapping up what we said, copying down notes and not asking any questions – behaviour more common in my generation. Of course, SMU students are known to be more participative, but overall I feel things are changing for the better. As experienced during our talk, we can have different opinions but still respect each other’s views.
I’m glad to have worked with Prema and Susheela, and am also thankful to Vas for helping us with so much of the preparations over the past few days. Muah!
Youtube clips in our presentation (most not shown as they had problems loading)
– [French AIDS cartoon promoting safe sex](
– [Anti-smoking balcony ad]( – one student felt this alienated the smokers further instead of reaching out to them
– [Quitting is Hard, Not Quitting is Harder](
– [Arteriosclerosis]( (Australian)
– [Danish Anti-Smoking Commercial](
– [Smoking While Pregnant ](
– [PA Quit Smoking Campaign Trailer](
– [Sexuality/condom use](


  1. Vas

    I had just as much fun ‘cracking my brains’ for an exciting and interesting presentation. The comments will sure come in handy. Thanks for working with me on this.. and for the tips with Tech Crunch though for some weird reasons, it didn’t seem to work.

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