Ask a Modeler: How do You Explain Complicated Ideas When Speaking to a Client?

How do you explain complicated ideas when speaking to a client? Can you offer tips for speaking to a client with very little understanding of energy simulation?

-Curious Consultant

Dear Curious Consultant,

When explaining complicated ideas, you often follow one of three modes: act as if you know it all, talk to a “dummy”, or compromise. For a brief reply to a complicated question, a conscious effort is made to engage your own experience: an acknowledged risk. 

The quickest mode is to act important: fit as many qualifications as you can in your business card or email signature, and say the most simple things in the uttermost unintelligible way: the less the client understands, the more intelligent you will look; and then it becomes just a question of trust. The main advantage is that the client will delegate all responsibility to you, saving his own time, which quickly can become a disadvantage to your side; and if the varnish fails, you fall. This means that you will be (forever) stuck within what you already know and have tested, which may represent a risk in contemporary evolving contexts. 

Talking to “dummies” mode is the other way around. The market of books “for dummies” demonstrates a real human desire to understand complicated topics. If you and the client have time, you can structure years of university learning and practice into simple contexts, and stitch them together as understandable concepts. The main advantage derives from clients’ engagement readiness to assume risks that otherwise would be unacceptable for a “know it all/always works” expert. Client engagement will be key to ensure that daily building use will someday catch up with Building Performance Simulation, and may result in follow up optimization processes. Disadvantages and risks result from extreme investment in time, getting the client bored, and from “beginners’ confidence”; once the client learns to mix and match, “sky’s the limit,” or you are? You often find yourself in this position when proposing high-performance buildings and neighborhoods to clients or collectives, a process that is so engaging that time flies, while rarely money flows.

Compromise mode could be seen as a middle-ground, but it may compromise your standpoint as it requires real awareness and simplification risks. Many complicated concepts are counter-intuitive, and require illustration: stating that air with water goes up is hard to explain until you mention clouds. Compromise is thus based on continuous play between what goes in both minds: yours and the clients’. Attention to non-verbal signs is favored by “one to one” conversations where you grasp your clients’ starting point. The advantage is that you actually end up learning new perspectives from these conversations, while the disadvantage comes from unexpected extrapolations. “Loose ends” may look connectable, just as the USB male printer cable fits the RJ45 (Ethernet) female printer plug. How many connections, and work hours, were lost for millions of printers to now include disposable RJ45 plastic anti-USB protections?  

In reality, we often adapt each of these behaviours to explain complicated concepts during one conversation with a client. We enter “know it all” mode when we talk about mandatory minimum requirements, as it would be useless to explain that some concepts designed last century did not keep up with current sensing and acting solutions. “Compromise” mode will lead you to explain that scheduled ventilation results in constant ventilation rates even if no user is present in a zone. To demonstrate comprehension, the client will extrapolate by proposing ventilation shutdown, so you enter “dummy” mode to explain it is unwise; and there you are offering a ”crash course” on VOCs (volatile organic compounds), humidity, and the rest. Invisible air is complicated, and so is what it carries, and you need augmented realities to explain it adequately.

What really matters, dear Curious Consultant, is that you progressively become aware of the “mode” you are at each time: with practice your self-awareness will facilitate effective communication with your client, and great opportunities to learn from them. 

Nelson Brito, arch., EPC Qualified Expert/Experts’ trainer, 
PhD. candidate at MIT-Portugal Program on “Upgrade Opportunities for historic buildings (in city centers) 
Associated researcher at Universidade de Coimbra 

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