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Communicating with Charts and Graphs

A wonderfully illustrative method of displaying complex data...

Another important technique for dealing with data is to make good use of charts and graphs. Charts are a wonderfully illustrative method of displaying data that would otherwise be to complex for many audiences. Here are some tips for charting:

Charting Tips:

  • Use charts to get the reader's attention. Use charts particularly for data points that you want the reader to take notice of. Charts stand out well in a document, so you can use that to your advantage.
  • Non-scientific-audiences. For non-scientific audiences, use easy-to-understand charts, such as pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, and tables. Avoid using complex charts, such as stacked bar charts, scatterplots, etc.
  • Use explanations and bullet points. Wherever possible, try to include explanations or bullet points beneath the chart. This will help to ensure that your audience interprets the chart correctly and that the message is not lost on them. You can also include additional information or data in these bullets that cannot be seen in the chart.
  • Use stand-alone charting. Charts should be able to stand on their own, with or without the text. Therefore, always include titles, legends, and other labels.
  • Chart garbage. Get rid of unnecessary chart “garbage” that clutters up your document and takes away from the data’s message. This includes many of the default settings in charting programs like Microsoft® Excel. Get rid of the horizontal gridlines, the ugly grey background the chart borders, the excessive tick marks, etc. Even 3-D can be a distraction from the actual message of the data.
  • Don’t have too many data points on one chart. For example, pie charts should have no more than six slices, line graphs should have no more than four lines, and bar charts are most effective if they contain only a few bars, etc.
  • Using tables. Tables should be used when no other good charting options are available. Tables are excellent for displaying lots of data; but because they require more decoding, they are the least preferred charting method.

Regardless of what data, statistics, or charts you include in your document, just make sure you double-check your numbers to ensure they are accurate. There’s nothing more embarrassing than presenting a report full of data and having someone point out a calculation error. Your whole report could be discredited from a simple mistake. Also, you may want to have a statistician check over your numbers to make sure you are presenting data in a mathematically correct way.

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rev. 29-Aug-2016




A picture of different charts - line graph, bar graph, pie chart, table.
Resource Library

Download the handouts and presentations from recent workshops - several contain information about charting.


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