The naked chart

I just finished reading an excellent book called The Naked Presenter by Garr Reynolds.  The book provides clear and concise methods on delivering memorable and powerful presentations using simple approaches.  The author’s Zen enthused blog on presentations and the delivery of presentations is both fun and informative. If you are presenters or would be presenters, do us all a favor – read and practice his methods.  Let’s hope I won’t be sitting in another boring and dull presentation at work. 🙂

Admittedly, accountants and analysts seldom have to deliver presentations.

But, we do  create many charts and graphs. The ideas for good presentations can be transferred to good graphs.

A good graph is free of clutter, unnecessary items like legend, title, and lines.  Use them only when you need them. If you have only one set of data in your graph, you only need one of these – a title, a legend, or a label.  Don’t cram everything in there.

A good graph tells ONE story, not multiple stories.   Multiple stories (in the form of two different scales on the two axises) distorts the message.

Stick with one axis. If you have a lot of data to share, create 2 graphs, 3 graphs, or more graphs.

Make sure your y-axis starts at zero.  For some reason, Microsoft Excel does not default the value to zero.  In most cases, you have to do that yourself.  If you fail to set your y axis at zero, your scale tells a deceptively different story than the same one at zero.

Let’s analyze two charts with the same data source.

This chart is the chart Excel created for me by default.

This is a huge improvement from Excel 2003.  But, we still need to clean our chart.

First, the y-axis (the grades) are not starting out at zero. Right click on the y-axis > Format Axis > Axis Options > Minimum radio button from “auto” to “fixed” and enter “0”

Second, there is just one set of data. I don’t need both the legend and the chart title.  Get rid of one.Highlight either one of them and delete it.

Third, the horizontal lines are distracting. Get rid of them. Click on one of the lines and delete.

Fourth, make your graph look simple by getting rid of the borders surrounding the chart.Click on the chart > Format Chart Area > Border Color > No line

Here is what my chart looks like after the clean up. In the first chart, the student with the 95 seems to be doing far better than the other students.  Yes, he/she has the highest grade but the first chart makes the other students in the class look like slackers when they are not.  The second graph looks clean and simple and it tells a better story.

Months ago I read an extensive blog on what makes a good chart. I tried to find it again and couldn’t.  When I do, I will create a link for you to read.

Student A 90
Student B 87
Student C 95
Student D 89
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