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Friday, January 27, 2012

How to Make Charts and Graphs Exciting

Most charts and graphs are boring. Maybe not to you, since you made it and you're excited about the numbers, but everyone else sees it through a fog. They see the jumble of information and struggle to comprehend the point of all the data. In the end, it would be better to not show them a chart at all, rather than show something as incomprehensible and boring as the picture to the right.

What's wrong with it? First, there's too much information to digest in too little time. Your brain takes about 3 seconds to gather in the data and if it's not apparent in that time, you will shut down. Sure, the chart is clearly labeled and each line has its own color, but the three second test shows that it's a jumble. It takes a long time to get oriented to what's happening.

Second, the point of the chart isn't clear. You shouldn't show a chart in a presentation unless you're using it to make a point and you can't make a point if it's not clear. Using the same 3 second rule, how would you determine the meaning of a the chart above? In that short a time, all I can see is that things changed over time. But, looking at the chart to the left, in 3 seconds I can tell that there's been a dramatic drop in foreign investment by the United States. The point of the chart is clear and stunning, in just a short amount of time.

Finally, there's no emotion. Communication is, partly, about sharing data, but that data is carried in emotional word and images. What emotion do you want your chart to evoke? If it's boredom, go with the first chart. But if you want to inspire, frighten, encourage or reprimand people with your data, there needs to be a clear, emotional punch to your data. The second chart has a clear statement of what the data shows and then it has a quote explaining what's happening.


  • Remove clutter, a cleaner chart is easier to digest quickly.
  • Highlight your point visually, if other data should be ignored, remove it or fade it into the background.
  • Use different methods for visualizing data, steer clear of the line, bar and pie charts when possible. 
Check out a masterful presentation of data by Hans Rosling on CNN. 

*Note, that the data needs to be analyzed in detail, but that should happen before you give the presentation, then if someone wants to see all of the data that went into your charts, you can have it available and let them know why you drew the conclusions you did.

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