Rules For Making and Using Charts to Represent Your Data

One of my favorite QuestionPro features is its reporting ability.  OK, let’s be honest, my MOST favorite feature is the survey reporting ability that QuestionPro offers.  But no amount of feature can cure bad and even stupid use of charts that don’t help you convey the information.

This is why I’m offering a quick and easy primer on which charts to use to represent your data. Climbing the ladder of success

Graphing Your Data 101 – 3 fundamentals no one pays attention to

  1. Decide on what you want to say.  There are really two phases of chart making of your data; the first is to understand what the data is saying and then there’s the data that you present to the audience to communicate the results — and ultimately to get what you want.  So, the first thing you want to do is decide exactly what you want people to do and what you’re going to say to get them to do it.
  2. Only use charts to answer the question”how many and how much”.  I know this seems obvious, but how many times have you seen charts and graphs that are all over the place and out of context.  Think about where answering the “how many and how much” question will have the most impact and influence on your audience — then use those charts there.  A good place to insert these charts is in the beginning of your presentation — to disrupt or get attention from the audience.  Another great place to show these kinds of charts is after your introduction, to support your thesis and point of view.
  3. Start with one model and stick with it.  Once you’ve selected a chart type, don’t go switching things around — like flipping the axes.  Your audience will learn how to read your first few charts – so if you radically change something, their brains will suddenly go into “figuring it out” mode and not listening and being persuaded mode.

Which charts are best for your data set

Use the simplest chart to make your point.  Spreadsheet and presentation software have gone bananas with varieties of charts that you can use — it’s no wonder you’re feeling confused about how to communicate your data.  When you look more closely there are really only four types of charts; bars, lines, pies and bubbles.  That’s it. So just pick ONE.

  • Bar charts:  Use this when you want to COMPARE quantities of something; 1,000 apples vs. 800 oranges vs. 100 strawberries.
  • Line and area charts: Use these when you are COMPARING absolute quantities between two different criteria or times: supermarkets carry 200 apples, 50 oranges and 80 pineapples while the corner fruit stand carries 100 apples, 100 oranges and 50 pineapples.
  • Pies:  Use pie charts to compare RELATIVE quantities of something; 52% apples, 13% oranges, 8% pears.
  • Bubbles: Use bubbles to compare more than two variables.


It’s not about reporting — it’s about selling

I’m probably committing market research heresy by saying this, and I’m willing to take it.  I firmly believe that most conversations and communications are sales conversations.  Even “Pass the salt” is a sales conversation — it’s just taking place in a non-selling context.

I bring this up because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the reporting and data presenting and lose sight of what the true purpose of the effort is — to make a particular decision, to get funding for a project, to get people to see things the way you see them.  In other words — a persuasive conversation.

Even if the purpose is to tell a story and to inform, the trick is to take your audience on a journey where they leave having “gotten” what you have to say.

Charts and graphs play a critical role in the reporting process, so use them accordingly.