Skip to content

Think before you ‘insert chart’

Spreadsheets and other data analysis software gives us a wide range of ways to present results – but they don’t tell us how to use them. The result is that most charts and graphs we see in business are poor, and possibly even incomprehensible. This needn’t be the case.

Take some simple data like this:

Data table

To present this data, many people would just create some sort of awful Excel-default bar chart like this:

Sure, it does a job, but did the presenter even think about what they were trying to say? Readers have to follow the bars down to see what’s what, there’s no headline conclusion, and it just looks grim. Let’s say what we really wanted to highlight was that there were 289 enquiries, and that blue widgets got 182 of them, over 50%:

This chart took about 30 seconds longer to create in Excel, the extra time taken up by changing the colours, fonts and text sizes, and adding a text box in the centre.

There are of course far better tools for visualisation than the inbuilt ones in spreadsheets (even something as readily available as Powerpoint is a step forward), but the key issue here is to ensure that the chart tells the story clearly. It’s almost certainly not meant to be a reference where viewers can look up various data points – it’s just meant to illustrate one particular thing.

There are of course many entire books on data visualisation, but for anyone who even only has to occasionally illustrate something from a small data set, I’d at least recommend reading some of the many online articles on the subject. An easy starter might be 8 Data Visualization Examples for Marketers on the CXL blog.