7 Steps to make a professional looking column graph in Excel or PowerPoint

A column graph or chart is used to compare values to each other. It typically compares values in only a single data series. It is simple to create in Excel or PowerPoint, but making it look professional takes attention to the details of the graph. Here are 7 steps to turn the default column graph into a professional looking column graph.

Increase the ratio of columns to background

By default, Excel and PowerPoint make the columns thin so that there is more background showing than columns. This ratio is controlled by the Gap Width setting on the columns. The default is usually 219%, meaning that the gap between the columns is 219% the width of the columns, leading to more background than columns. I suggest the columns should have more prominence and setting the Gap Width to 40-60% does that.

Remove the legend

With a single data series, the legend is not needed because the chart title will include the information explaining what the viewer is seeing. Removing the legend gives more space for the graph.

Add data labels and remove gridlines

By default horizontal gridlines are added to the graph. The intention is to help the viewer determine the value of each column by relating the top of the column back to the vertical axis values. It is much easier to add data labels that tell the viewer the values and then the gridlines are not needed.

Clean up the axes

By default, the horizontal axis includes a line that acts as the baseline for the columns. This line is not needed as the columns clearly all start at the same baseline. The vertical axis by default has values spaced evenly between the minimum and maximum values. In many cases the addition of data labels makes the vertical axis redundant and it can be removed. The exception is when you need the viewer to know the minimum and maximum values so the column heights are not misinterpreted (this article explains more about the situation when the vertical axis does not start at zero and this article shows a way to zoom in on a column graph to show small differences).

Add text that explains the message

Without text that helps the viewer understand the message of the graph, you run the risk of misinterpretation. The chart title should explain the message. You can also add explanatory text that directs the audience to a particular place in the graph where the message is shown.

Increase font sizes so they are easy to read

The default font sizes for graphs are often too small for the viewer to easily read. Increase the font sizes so that the text can be easily read and understood. The chart title should usually be the largest font (and can be in bold), the data labels and explanatory text next largest, and the axis labels can be slightly smaller.

Use color to focus attention

By default all of the columns are the same color and all of the data labels are the same color. By making one column, its data label, and the explanatory text stand out, you help the viewer to focus on the column that is most important to the message.

To create a professional looking column graph is simple in Excel or PowerPoint. It just takes attention to the details of the graph and changing from the defaults to settings that make it easier for the viewer to quickly understand the message from the graph. The above steps took us from the default graph in Excel and PowerPoint, which looks like this:

to a professional looking column graph:

By Dave Paradi

Dave Paradi has over twenty-two years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written ten books and over 600 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don't overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of fewer than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel, PowerPoint, and Teams communities. His articles and videos on virtual presenting have been viewed over 3.5 million times and liked over 14,000 times on YouTube.