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Data Visualization Secrets: How To Choose The Right Chart or Graph



No  matter the industry you are in, data is central to nearly every presentation. But there’s more to effectively visualizing data than dropping a default chart onto a PowerPoint slide.


But before you go down the rabbit hole of data visualization and storytelling, let’s start with the basics. In this post, we’ll cover a few of the most common types of charts, and offer a few tips on when (and how) to use each one.


What is data visualization?

When we talk about visualizing data, there are two basic ways to go about it: charts and infographics.


Types of data visualization (charts vs. infographics)

While there is a lot of overlap between the two forms, they also represent different approaches to data storytelling.


With charts and graphs, you’re using established forms to clearly and consistently represent data. These are your standard pie/bar/line charts.


With infographics, you are using more custom designs to represent an idea. This may include charts and graphs as a part of your infographic, but typically will focus on some custom or graphic element.


The difference between the two is really about how you want to show your data and tell your story. Either approach can be effective, but each one will be most useful for certain situations.


In this post, we’ll focus on charts and graphs, since these are both the most common type of data visualization, as well as the simplest to implement.


How to choose the right charts

When you go to create a chart in PowerPoint, you’ll see a long list of chart types, as well as different styles for each type. 


But choosing a chart isn’t just about aesthetics – the chart you select should reflect the type of data you need to show, and the message you want it to convey. 


While there is some flexibility here, in general each chart type is best suited to a certain application.


Let’s take a look at the most common chart types, and talk about when and why you should use them.


Tables

Tables are one of the simplest (and most common) types of chart. They are also the type that looks the least “visual.”


But don’t let the simplicity fool you – tables are incredibly effective at showing variables within categories. And because they are so simple, they offer a lot of flexibility for customization.

Tables (Choosing the right chart)

Bar Charts

Bar charts are another familiar style for most presenters. They are typically used for showing comparisons of several figures, and even showing comparisons of the same figures over time.


There are many types of bar charts, including different orientations, but a simple flat version (like the picture) is our favorite. To add some customization, you can bake your colors right into the presentation to give your chart a branded look.

Bar charts (columns)

Line Charts

Line charts are great for showing changes over time. For example, if you want to chart sales figures compared to other products for each quarter, a line chart makes it easy to see how each functioned.


Simplifying a line chart to a flat version (as opposed to 3D) is a great pro tip for creating easy-to-read line charts. 

Line charts (Choosing the right chart)

Pie Charts

Pie charts are excellent for showing the parts of something. For example, if you wanted to see what percentage of total sales a certain product contributes to a brand’s growth, a pie chart makes it simple for the audience to visualize.


We find that the Donut chart, a flattened version of a Pie chart with a hole in the center (seen above), is the easiest for an audience to grasp quickly.

Donut charts (Choosing the right chart)

Combo Charts

Sometimes you need something a little extra to truly help your data story shine. A Combo chart combines a bar and line graph to give you the best of both worlds: comparison AND change over time. This is also a great way to establish relationships between two things, like for example ice cream sales and the time of year.


But as you add in more elements, the potential for confusion also grows. When using more complex visuals like Combo charts, be sure your data is clear and your chart design is simple enough to easily and quickly scan.

Combo charts (Choosing the right chart)

Chart pro tips

Now that you’ve got a handle on the types of charts you’ll typically use, there are a few tricks you can use to make them easier to follow for your audience.


Keep the presentation format in mind

How the data is being presented can impact how it’s designed. For example, an in-person presentation should focus on clear and simple data visuals, so it’s quick and easy for the audience to get the point without taking attention away from the speaker. But a leave behind version can use denser, more complex charts and infographics, since the audience has extra time and attention to read them.


Remove extra elements

You might think you need to include things like a key/legend in your chart, or even things like labels for hash marks. But elements like this often do more to distract the audience than they do to help convey the message. A well designed chart is generally self explanatory, so look for more visual ways to get information to your audience.


Write titles with a takeaway

It’s common to see charts with a title like “Q4 Sales.” While this is what the chart is showing, it’s not a very helpful description for the audience as they try to interpret the data. Instead, write chart titles that highlight the key insight or takeaway from the data. Even a change as simple as “Q4 Sales Surge” suddenly paints the chart in a new light, adding clear context and priming the audience to align with the speaker on the key message.


Chart your course

This is just the beginning of what you can do with data visualization in presentations. As you dive deeper into charts and infographics, always keep in mind that the ultimate goal isn’t to make the prettiest chart, it’s to convey information to your audience. Keep all your designs focused on clarity of content, and you’ll chart a course to the top of your field!


Ready to go deeper into your data viz journey? Check out our brief video series on the Three Steps in Data Storytelling!


Looking for more information about Investor Day presentations and beyond? Check out our resources for expert advice and tested strategies.



About the author

Kyle Kartz is the Creative Director of Storytelling at VerdanaBold. He is an expert copywriter and strategist, with experience driving major campaigns for global brands in multiple industries. He is passionate about communications, the outdoors, and cooking.

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