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#25: Picking the Best Chart Format to Make Your Point

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Thursday, April 09, 2009
How do I select the best type of chart to use when I am trying to simply convey a point about complex data?

All of us use data in our consulting work, whether we are in training, leadership, strategy, process improvement, facility management or other discipline. Our ability to analyze and understand a client's situation and convey our findings clearly and without misinterpretation is essential to our effectiveness. Many graphical formats are available in spreadsheet software like Excel, but it does take some learning to select the right format and structure the data in the most effective way. Often the best representation of data is not a simple scatterplot, histogram or stacked bar chart. Many of us are very familiar with Ed Tufte's work on visual display of quantitative information and how easily (or intentionally) data meaning can be distorted.

Sometimes complex data require a complex chart. But that doesn't mean there aren't some rules about communication and data visualization that aren't useful for consultants. Consider what you are trying to convey. Typically, you are showing distribution of data, relationships between variables, comparison of items, or composition of parts of a whole. These may seem to overlap and, depending on the nature of the point you are trying to get across, you may have several choices of an effective graphical type. An interesting flowchart is available to help you choose. There are many great examples of relatively simple, yet powerful data visualization techniques. Florence Nightingale’s Coxcomb chart of Crimean War casualties is one such example.

Tip: Consultants don't place enough emphasis on visual display of data in our work. We will polish our writing and PowerPoint presentations but fail to work hard to make sure that the single graphic clearly and memorably makes your point. Spend some time reading about how to best show the facts of your client's circumstances and future. Remember, data visualization does not have to be static. Some of the most effective are animations or video/flash. The flow of commercial air traffic over a day conveys a lot of information.

© 2009 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  communication  data visualization  writing 

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