Illustrated by Michelle Shepard
It can be tricky to display data in presentations because different rules apply in different contexts. A sales director presenting financial projections to a group of field reps wouldn’t visualize her data the same way that a design consultant would in a written proposal to a potential client.
So how do you make the right choices for your situation? Before displaying your data, ask yourself these five questions:
1. Am I Presenting Or Circulating My Data?
Context plays a huge role in how best to render data. When delivering a presentation, show the conclusions you’ve drawn, not all the details that led you to those conclusions.
Because your slides will be up for only a few seconds, your audience will need to process them quickly. People won’t have time to chew on a lot of complex information, and they’re not likely to run up to the wall for a closer look at the numbers. So, think in broad strokes when you’re putting your charts together: What’s the overall trend you’re highlighting? What’s the most striking comparison you’re making? Those are the sorts of questions to answer when you want to display data in presentations.
Scales, grid lines, tick marks, and such should provide context, but without competing with the data. Use a light neutral color, such as gray, for these elements so they’ll recede into the background, and plot your data in a slightly stronger neutral color. Then use a bright color to emphasize the point you’re making, as in this example:
It’s fine to display more detail in documents or in decks that you e-mail rather than present. Readers can study them at their own pace — examine the axes, the legends, the layers — and draw their own conclusions from your body of work. Still, you don’t want to overwhelm them, especially since they won’t have you there in person to explain what your main points are. Use white space, section heads, and a clear hierarchy of visual elements to help your readers navigate dense content and guide them to key pieces of data.
2. Am I Using The Right Kind of Chart or Table?
When you choose how to visualize your data, you’re deciding what type of relationship you want to emphasize. Take a look at this chart, which shows the breakdown of an investment portfolio:
In the pie, it’s clear that this person holds a number of investments in different areas — but that’s about all you see.
Here are the same data in a bar chart:
Now it’s much easier to discern how much is invested in each category. If your focus is on comparing categories, the bar chart is the better choice. A pie chart would be more useful if you were trying to make the point that a single investment made up a significant portion of the portfolio.
3. What Message Am I Trying To Convey?
Whether you’re presenting or circulating your charts, you need to highlight the most important items to ensure that your audience can follow your train of thought and focus on the right elements. For example, this chart is difficult to interpret because all the information is displayed with equal visual value:
Are we comparing regions? Quarters? Positive versus negative numbers? It’s difficult to determine what matters most. By adding color, you can draw the eye to specific areas:
We now know that we should be focusing on when and in which regions revenue dropped.
4. Do My Visuals Accurately Reflect The Numbers?
Using a lot of crazy colors, extra labels, and fancy effects won’t captivate an audience. That kind of visual clutter dilutes the information and can even misrepresent it. Consider this chart:
Can you figure out the northern territory’s revenue for year one? Is it 17? Or maybe 19? The way some programs create 3D charts would lead any rational person to think that the bar in question is well below 20. However, the data behind the chart actually says that bar represents 20.4 units. You can see that if you look at the chart in a very specific way, but it’s difficult to tell which way that should be — even with plenty of time to scrutinize it.
It’s much clearer if you simply flatten the chart:
5. Is My Data Memorable?
Even if you’ve rendered your data clearly and accurately, it’s another challenge altogether to make the information stick. Consider using a meaningful visual metaphor to illustrate the scale of your numbers and cement the data in the minds of your audience members. A metaphor can also tie your insights to something that your audience already knows and cares about.
Author and activist Michael Pollan showed how much crude oil goes into making a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese through a striking visual demonstration: He placed glasses on a table and filled them with oil to represent the amount of oil consumed during each stage of the production process. At the end, he took a taste of the oil to drive home his point. (To add an element of humor, he later revealed his prop “oil” to be chocolate syrup.) Watch the video here:
Pollan could have shown a chart, but this was more effective because he gave the audience a tangible visual — one that triggered a visceral response.
By answering these five questions as you’re laying out your data, you’ll visualize it in a way that helps people understand and engage with each point in your presentation, document, or deck. As a result, your audience will be more likely to adopt your overall message.
A version of this article originally appeared in HBR.