How to choose the best chart to tell your story

We always have presentations or reports to do and it is common or even mandatory to include charts or graphs in it, but one of the struggles is understanding what type of chart to use. When you choose the wrong one it makes it extremely difficult to extract meaning from the numbers and it can lead to wrong decisions. We’ll give you some hints on which chart to use according to the message you want to convey.

Who will you be talking with?

The most engaging stories are those audience can relate to. Presenting results to your VP Sales it’s different from talking with the Business Intelligence Manager. They have different needs and goals. It’s crucial you adjust your data-based story to the audience.

A Harvard Business Review article titled “How to Tell a Story with Data,” identified five different audiences: novice, generalist, management, expert and executive. Here’s how to identify and answer to the needs of each listener:

Novice — They have never heard about the subject before however they don’t want oversimplification.

Generalist — They are aware of the topic and want an overview about the theme.

Management — For Management audiences it’s all about making decisions and having the right piece of information to do it. They will prefer in-depth and actionable insights.

Expert — An Expert would prefer you to go straight to the point, focusing less in the story and more in the exploration of data.

Executive — This kind of listener needs to understand the significance of the data analysis and is more focused on the conclusions.

Knowing your type of audience allows you to adapt the level of complexity of the information you are showing and boost audience engagement.

What do you want to say?

The second step to choose the right chart is understanding what is the story you are trying to tell. Your answer will probably fit into one of these four categories. You either want to show a relationship between data, a comparison, a composition or a distribution.

To show relationships between entities

A relationship shows a correlation between two or more variables and the impact they have. For instance you may want to relate products with clients or with sales, making queries like “sales by opportunity probability”.

The best chart types for establishing relationships are:

To compare values and identify trends

Like the name suggests it’s perfect for comparing items with each other or over time. A good example of this would be comparing sales results between sales reps or a see a sales rep performance in the last quarter.

To make comparisons you can use this charts:

To show the composition of something

We use composition to show how individual parts make up the whole. For instance you can show sales by product or country. These are the perfect charts to show composition:

To understand your data distribution

The goal with distribution is trying to understand outliers and normal ranges. This is especially useful for an Expert audience. A good example would be showing the distribution of “Opportunities last year”.

You can use these charts to show distribution:

  • Scatter Plot
  • Matrix
  • Histogram

Now let’s go deeper on the most used charts to understand how they can be used.

How each chart can help you

Bar chart

Bar and pie charts are the most popular ways to visualize data. With a bar chart you can quickly understand highs and lows, making it perfect for comparisons. “Sales by salesman” and “Opportunities by salesman” are two examples of a perfect match for this kind of chart.

Line chart

This is the perfect chart to show trends as it helps you perceive progress over time. Here are some examples of queries that would perform well in a line chart: “sales by month in 2015”, “website page views during a month” or “revenue by quarter”.

Stacked Bar chart

A stacked bar help you compare different items and shows you the composition of each item being compared. This type of chart is useful to visualize queries like “Sales by month by product” or “opportunities by stage by sales rep”.

Pie chart

Pie charts are frequently misused. They should only be an option when trying to show how categories represent part of a whole. As a pie chart presents numbers in percentages its total needs to be equal to 100%. Here are some queries that can be displayed in a pie: “Sales by product” or “Activities by sales rep”.

Scatter Plot chart

A scatter chart can help you visualize two things: relationships between two different variables or the distribution of your data. It should be used to find similarities within many different data points. Here are two examples of when to use a Scatter Plot: “Sales by opportunities probability” and “sales amount by client last year”.

Final Thoughts

Try to combine different chart, like bars and lines or maps and pies to communicate more complicated data. Remember that charts and graphs should clarify information and ultimately anyone should be able to pick up your chart and understand what information the data is trying to communicate.

Good luck for your next presentation!


Originally published at wizdee.com on June 2, 2015.

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