Latest posts

 

Another option for diverging bar charts; Issue #400 October 17, 2017

When you have two data series that represent different groups, a diverging stacked bar chart visual may be a better option than a stacked column or bar chart. Here is an example from a makeover in a recent customized workshop. In this visual, the bars for the two series start from a center line and extend left and right. The audience can see the comparison of the values in each series because the bars for that series start at the same baseline. You can also add the total if needed as a separate column as shown in the example above. Typically this visual would be created by using negative values in a stacked bar chart to create the bars on the left of the vertical axis. I have a calculator and video on how to do this here. This method requires the use of custom number formats for the negative numbers to display them as positive numbers. Recently I discovered a new way to create this visual which uses some tricks to make it easier to display positive numbers for the left side bars. It uses the stacked bar chart, but uses spacers and moving the position of the axis. Let’s start by looking at the data table for the stacked bar graph. You can see that I have used a spacer segment to get the left side bars (the Automated data series in this example) to line up at the right side of each bar. The spacer1 plus Automated values total 4 for each category. By setting the spacer1 segment to be No Outline and No Fill, it...

3 Alternatives to axis breaks; Issue #398 September 19, 2017

Twice in the past few months I have seen column charts with axis breaks. Some software makes it easy to create these types of charts. In this article I want to recommend against using this type of chart and offer some alternatives. To start with, what is an axis break chart and why would it be created? If the values you are comparing are different by an order of magnitude, a regular column chart makes it difficult to see the smaller value. Here is an example of a broken axis chart. These charts are very hard to create in Excel or PowerPoint, usually involving manually adding the break shape or splitting a graph image into two pieces. They are misleading to the audience because they don’t allow an accurate comparison of the height of the columns. The indicator for the missing section is seen, but almost everyone will find it difficult to take the gap into account when visually comparing the columns. One problem is that some software uses axis breaks as a default. Unless you change the default setting, all column charts will include an axis break. The missing section will be different each time, making the graphs not consistent. Make sure that this is not the case in software you are using. What alternatives do you have if the values you are comparing are different by an order of magnitude or more? My first choice when values are different by orders of magnitude is to use a proportional shapes visual instead of a column graph. A proportional shapes visual uses the area of shapes to represent the values...

Total on stacked columns/bars; Issue #397 September 5, 2017

Recently I wrote about how I think presenters should replace stacked column or bar graphs with better visuals (see the entire article here). In my customized workshops I have participants who need to create a stacked graph because the boss wants it or the audience expects to see the data presented that way. Often they need to show each segment, as well as the total of the segments. In this article I want to explain two methods for adding the total to a stacked column or bar graph. One method works for both graphs and the other method works only for stacked column graphs. These methods are driven by data, not adding text box labels. This means they are easier to update when the values are copied from Excel. I will start with the method that only works for stacked column graphs. Here is an example of the total added to segments that break down the total spending on staff into regular and overtime pay. The method used to add the totals to the top of each column is to add an extra data series with the totals as the values. Change the graph type of this series to a line graph. Set the line to no color and add data labels of the values above each data point. This positions the totals above the segments in the column. As I have done in the example above, I suggest adding data labels to each segment since those values are also important for the audience (if the segments were not important, you would use a simple column graph of the...

Focus by using an All Others category; Issue #396 August 22, 2017

In my ongoing survey of what annoys audience members about PowerPoint, I expect that I will hear once again that information overload is a big issue. It is not just the slides that are filled with paragraphs of text or the spreadsheets copied onto slides. Visuals can also overload the audience and leave them confused. One of the examples I see often is a graph that has a lot of columns or bars. In a recent workshop I had an example of a column graph with 72 columns! With so much to look at no wonder the audience couldn’t figure it out. Why does this happen and what can we do about it? I think graph overload happens for the same reason that number overload happens when a spreadsheet is copied on a slide: we have all the data, so why not include it all for the audience. The mistake is thinking that the audience wants to see all the data. What they want is to understand the key messages from your analysis so they can make the decisions that are needed. If you think the audience may want to see all the data, make it available outside the presentation. In my latest book GPS for Presentations, I suggest making it available before the presentation in a pre-read document, or after the presentation by sending a link to a file on SharePoint or a network drive. What I suggest you do in the presentation is use an All Others category to consolidate all the data that is not important to the point. Here is a graph that illustrates visual...

Proportion visual using characters; Issue #395 August 8, 2017

The most common visuals used when showing one segment compared to the whole are a pie graph or donut graph. Everyone is familiar with them and they work well. Another visual you can consider when the message is about individual people or objects is a group of items or ISOTYPE style visual. Here is an example from a past customized workshop. In this type of proportion visual, shapes or icons are used to represent the focus segment and the whole. A common way to create this visual if you are using squares is to use a table. In the example above, the borders are set to white and the shading color creates the distinction between the focus group and the whole. You can also create this type of visual using characters in a text box. This can allow you to easily include a proportion visual in a block of text or allow you to build a visual one group at a time through animation (which tables do not allow). This type of visual requires using characters that are inserted using the Insert – Symbol method for inserting special characters. The Wingdings font contains some characters that can be helpful. Character code 108 is a filled circle and code 110 is a filled square. Insert as many characters as you need to show the whole amount (I usually insert one, then copy and paste to create the rest). Since these are characters, you can change the font color to distinguish the two parts. You can use these characters to create this type of visual showing 24% using 12 colored squares...

Will replacing presentations with interactive visual dashboards help executives make decisions?

Recently I have seen more emphasis on creating interactive visual dashboards for executives in products such as Tableau and Power BI. These dashboards allow executives to visually play with graphs based on underlying data. They can apply filters for time periods, products, geographic regions, and many other dimensions. They can position their cursor on a specific spot on the visual and the details of that point pop up on the screen. Some suggest that presentations can be replaced by these dashboards. These dashboards look cool and fancy, but I wonder whether the executives they are built for are really getting what they need. I can see the value in an analyst using some of these approaches to be able to visually see patterns or anomalies in data which leads to deeper investigation and hopefully insights. My concern is that an executive has a different role, one that may not be helped by these displays of information. The role of an executive is to make difficult decisions that move the organization forward on the goals it has set. The executive relies on the experts in each area to perform analysis that will discover key insights into the current performance of the organization. This leads to suggestions of what actions can be taken to improve the key metrics. The role of the analyst is to perform the analysis and determine the recommended actions. The executive doesn’t have the time or the detailed knowledge to do the analysis. Most of the dashboards I see are providing measurement and performance results that answer the questions, “What happened?” and “How did the results compare...

Executive Summary slide; Issue #394 July 25, 2017

In a couple of recent customized workshops I was asked about Executive Summary slides. The participants had been asked by their boss to include a summary slide at the start of the presentation, and wondered what I thought of that idea. An Executive Summary comes from written reports, where busy executives can get the highlights of the report by just reading this first part of the document. It reminds me of a CFO boss I had who told me that he would never read more than one page of my report, so make it only a single page. He wanted to know the key information, not all the details. This idea fits very well with what I say in my workshops and in my latest book GPS for Presentations. Figure out the key messages and put the rest of the detail in hidden backup slides or in supplementary files. The Executive Summary is just a different way of displaying these key messages. At the start of each presentation, I suggest you share an agenda that is the high level outline of what you will cover. This helps the audience know where the journey will take them. It often reduces their anxiety because they find out that you will be addressing their key concerns about the topic. I see an Executive Summary like a slightly more detailed version of the agenda. Here’s a slide based on an Executive Summary for a makeover in a recent workshop. The Executive Summary doesn’t contain all of the details. It isn’t just cramming all the details on a slide in a tiny font. It...

Showing a trend and comparing current value to last Q and last Y; Slide Makeover #88

Analyzing performance requires looking at the current value in context. The context often includes the trend in past values and the comparison to the last value and the value for the same period in the previous year. . This makeover shows how you can use a line graph instead of a column graph to show both the trend and comparisons. You can also watch this slide makeover directly on...

Replace stacked column graphs; Issue #393 July 11, 2017

I recently had a good discussion in the comments of a blog post by research data viz specialist Ann K Emery (the blog post and discussion are here). It led me to write this article explaining why I think stacked column graphs do not serve your audience very well and what you can do instead. A stacked column graph is a common visual used to compare a breakdown of values into categories. Here is an example based on a recent slide makeover for a workshop client. The graph shows the breakdown in terms of level of engagement within three customer categories. What key messages should the audience focus on? Is it the darker segments in the middle, which are hard to compare because they don’t line up with each other? Actually, the key messages are that Category C is significantly more likely to be highly engaged and less likely to be inactive. This illustrates the key problems with stacked column graphs. First, it is hard to compare segments that don’t have a common baseline, and second, there is often more data shown than needed to communicate the key message. I think there are two options to consider that visually show this data better than a stacked column graph. First, consider a small multiples graph where each segment has its own baseline, so the comparison of values in each segment is much easier. Here is what this would look like for the above graph. Notice how I also used the choice of colors to focus the audience on the two levels of engagement that are important for the messages. How...

GPS for Presentations: A structured approach to planning presentations with a clear message and focused content

Most presenters don’t use a structured approach to planning their presentations. They start by grabbing slides from presentations they and their colleagues have done in the past. They try to organize these slides into a coherent message and struggle to do so. The result is often an overload of information that doesn’t flow well. The audience leaves overwhelmed and confused. Instead, use a structured approach similar to the way a GPS system plans a trip. When I think of a presentation, I think of it as taking the audience on a journey. Today, almost everyone has used a GPS to help plan and take a trip. Whether it is a dedicated GPS device, one built into a vehicle, or an app on our smartphone, these systems give us a detailed plan for travelling between a starting location and our destination. I started seeing this analogy apply to the planning of a presentation a few years ago. I started sharing parts of the idea with audiences and it resonated so well that I developed it further into a complete approach that can be used by any business professional to plan their presentation. I redefined the acronym as follows: G – Goal A GPS starts by asking you the destination you want to reach. In our presentations, the destination is the goal of the presentation. P – Present Situation The next step in using a GPS is for it to determine your current location. In a presentation, this is determining the present situation the audience and the presenter find themselves in. S – Steps Once the GPS has your current location...