Persuade with Data - Sculpt your Excel Charts

He uses statistics as a drunk man uses lamp posts - for support rather than illumination.
— Andrew Lang

It is not just the volume but the complexity of data being collected that makes it difficult for us to analyse and interpret in a clear and simple way. As we are bombarded with data, most people still reach for excel to create charts to explain this data. After all, it's easy. Select our table of data, find the command for insert chart, chose one of the types of chart and then choose one of the options for that specific chart. That's easily done.

More than 200 years ago, Samuel Johnson wrote about reading.

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
— Samuel Johnson

Today, if he were writing about excel, he might say:

Charts created without effort are read without pleasure.
Charts created without effort are read without insight.

So, with little time and effort how can we create charts to be read with insight and pleasure? Do I really mean pleasure? Yes, I do. If you look at a chart and see the message instantly, that's still so rare - that it's a pleasure. 

How can we create charts for insight and pleasure? Well think like a sculptor. The sculptor starts with a block of stone, then removes more and more until we see the finished statue. The chart straight out of excel is our block of stone.

What should we remove?

  • Have either vertical scale or number each point, don't have both
  • Any scale lines (horizontal or vertical)
  • Any legend (key), simply select the first or last point and label that
  • Excessive numbers: instead of 3,650,457 change the number to 3.6 million
  • Colours on points or lines; use only one colour to make the point

Storytelling with data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, includes some practical examples of how you can remove elements to display insights in an instant. These examples are shown between 4.30 and 7.00 minutes within the video.

For ideas about some alternative charts, have a look at Jon Moon's book Clarity and Impact or go to his website and download some samples of charts. (Chapter 2 and Chapter 30)

China Surges, is one of my favourites because most people would use bar charts and the insights about which countries have increased and which countries have decreased would be difficult to discern. Straight out of excel, different colours mean different years. This is not helpful.

With the alternative chart, you quickly work out green = increases and red = decreases. Then you start wondering why some countries increased and some decreased. You start to enjoy the sculpture.

Now you can focus on the insights the information provides, and how you can use this data to inform your future choices. For more insights on persuading with big data download our ebook: Persuading with Big Data - Keep it Simple. To learn how to persuade the hearts and minds of your audience and move then to action, try the Persuading for Results course at the University of Newcastle, Sydney.