The graph is a lie

How some presenters use ploys to control perception

Vineet Chaudhary
Oct 27, 2014 · 5 min read

You can’t alter the data in your presentation because that would be lying. But you are more than allowed to control the perception of the numbers & charts inside your presentation. From Apple Keynotes to Verizon Ads and Fox News segments, the following tactics are used practically daily.

1) Make it cumulative

Everyone loves a chart that goes up and to the right. It shows growth. It shows you’re a rocket ship. But what can you do if your graph looks like this before the big meeting?


What you should be doing is adding the numbers up as a cumulative amount. Add each number to the previous one to keep a running total. This turns your regular boring bar graph into a freaking rocket ship.

2) Make it taller

Let’s say your data began on Jan 1st and ended on Dec 31st. Most presenters will simply plot the data and call it a day. This can result in some boring looking charts:

But, if you add some blank data before your real data starts, you can easily make the graph appear more dramatic. Each entry gets “taller”.

Now, simply zoom in, take a screenshot and place it in your presentation. Boring graph, no more. We’re headed for the sky!

3) Go 3 dimensional

Let’s say you have a pie chart that showed your results and your competitors’ numbers as well.

Obviously you don’t want the audience to think about your competitor even for a millisecond. So let’s convert it into a 3D chart, rotate it, and focus on our pretty side instead. Use perspective to change their perception!

4) Change the entire scale

Let’s say your competitor’s lead is too big. You don’t want to look like a troubled company, now do you? So just switch to a logarithmic scale to bring them down a notch.

Your puny little company using regular linear math:

Your amazing startup on a log scale of 10:

5) Talk about the delta

Let’s say your revenue went up from $1 Million to $1.2 Million. That’s awesome! But when you say those numbers, they sound basically the same. That’s just how perception works for a semi-tuned in audience.

$1 Million : $1.2 Million :: Tomato : Tomahto

Instead, you should be saying that you grew by 20%. So calculate the delta and repeat that instead. You’ll soon find out that your audience will repeat it in the following days just like you did.

An additional benefit of using percentages is that the audience presumes that number will continue to occur for the foreseeable future. They want to be optimistic. Give them a number to rally with, even if you have no chance in repeating that number again.

6) Zoom Zoom

This one is straight out of Fox News’ playbook.

Let’s say you and your competitor are practically tied:

A simple change on the Y Axis, and that’s no longer true:

7) When all else fails, change the entire conversation

CFOs of public companies are notorious for this. This section might seem sarcastic at first (kind of like this entire blog post) but these tactics obviously work at some level or people wouldn’t be doing them over and over again.

  • Let’s say you didn’t make last quarter’s net profit goals.
    Solution: Compare it to the same quarter from a year ago instead. Hopefully it will seem higher now.
  • Net operating income lower than what people want?
    Solution: Blame it on “Research & Development” or hardware purchases. Neither of which you would’ve bothered to mention had the results been stellar.
  • Didn’t even come close to the revenue figures you promised investors at this stage?
    Solution: Make the conversation about “growth” instead. Then compare yourself to the “industry average” without mentioning how you calculated that very same average (or the fact that your competitors are mature companies who won’t ever have that “growth” rate again).

Disclaimer: Smart and attentive audience members will obviously think critically whenever they see any data point. So use these tricks if you wish, ridicule them, or better yet, just be aware of them.

Credits: Evil smiley icon designed by Austin Condiff & yellow vector graph via FreePik.

You should tell me your thoughts on Twitter.

    Vineet Chaudhary

    Written by

    Co-founder @ Trendage.