The Wow Factor: How to Use Charts to Impress Your Boss

CarnivalYou are in the middle of a presentation and your worst nightmare suddenly comes true: your boss yawns, and for the right reasons too: your presentation is dull, your charts are dull dull dull and you are boring your audience to tears.

The solution? High impact charts that keep your audience glued to the screen.

What Are High Impact Charts?

High impact, professional-looking charts are designed to impress your audience. Hit ’em right between the eyes and they’ll keep coming back for more! If you want to create successful high impact charts you should make sure they share some or all of these characteristics:

  • Real life-like objects: people love the sense of “concreteness” you can get from a well-rendered 3D chart;
  • Animation: if you really want to grab the attention of your audience, animation is your safest bet. Use it to add suspense or dramatic effects (you can do this easily using PowerPoint);
  • Hyperlinks: add some hyperlinks to your charts and/or PowerPoint presentations (for example, add a link to a pie chart slice to jump to a detail chart); people love this kind of sophistication!
  • Strong colors: your audience uses bright reads and yellows and greens all the time. They are expecting nothing less;
  • Go to the point: the message should be clear and simple. Don’t add irrelevant details or details that suggest a different answer;
  • Don’t-make-me-think charts: all charts your audience may not be familiar with (like scatter plots) are off limits;
  • Don’t overdo: often people don’t know where to stop: a 3D pie chart with a single slice exploded is fine; if you explode them all, that’s just stupid.

What you Shouldn’t Do

You’ll want to appear sophisticated, you should avoid:

  • Office 2003 Charts: 3D charts in Office 2003 (Excel and PowerPoint) are badly rendered and chart defaults are ugly. Use Office 2007 or try to make your charts using a free online tool;
  • Clipart and background images: While it is perfectly acceptable (and recommended) to use clipart and background images to keep the attention of your audience, please make sure they are a) send the right emotional message and b) reveal your good taste; try to find suitable images in Flickr or Istockphoto;
  • 3D line charts: While 3D bar and pie charts look great, the more abstract nature of line charts make them unsuitable for 3D effects. Use drop shadows instead.
  • Too many charts in a single slide: Stick to one single idea and make your chart big enough to make sure it impacts even the farthest person in the room;
  • Don’t be excessively consistent. Establish a pattern and be consistent, but add some randomness to force people to keep paying attention. A good place to try this is slide transition.

This is not Data Visualization

OK, before regular readers unsubscribe en masse after reading this post, let me add some notes:

  • Solid data management and visualization principles result in an understanding of your data that goes much beyond the simple illustration of some random key indicators;
  • Most managers don’t really care about data visualization because of their own low literacy rate;
  • However, merit is defined by them, based on their biased knowledge;
  • If you want to climb the corporate ladder, what you do must be aligned with their merit criteria, and the way you design and present your data is no exception;
  • The more you know about data visualization the more options you have. Your persona will be defined by what you know and choose to show, not because you don’t know any better.

So, if your next presentation includes an exploded, 3D, flying pie chart, make sure ignorance is not the reason behind it.

There is an unmistakable tension between what data visualization experts preach and corporate practices. How can we find the right balance between a “purity” that takes you nowhere and a practice that makes you cringe? Share your thoughts in the comments…

13 thoughts on “The Wow Factor: How to Use Charts to Impress Your Boss”

  1. Jorge–you nailed it. While I have learned a lot from the data vis gurus and am a better chart maker for it, there still is a need to some times “sell” an idea. And the tight “principles” of the data vis gurus make for a very boring presentation.

  2. Well, in the PPT model, there is always a transition between slides, right? 🙂 Use the same effect with variations (left-to-right, right-to-left).

  3. I think you can still make a great presentation even with tight principles. But how do you sell without selling yourself? That’s the hard part.

  4. @Pragmatic Cynic – I’m going to quote Tufte here and say if your visualizations are boring, then either you’re doing it wrong, or your data is boring. I think “Marketing Viz” definitely has a place but you have to make sure that you’re honest to yourself and to your audience.

  5. Good points. I read the post thinking there is some satire behind it. Only when I got to the end I realized you are serious.

    Despite talking about a lot of visualization techniques, I have come to a point where I very rarely use a chart in a presentation. In fact, I have gone ahead and junked our internal ppt templates and started making ppts without any background and just few images. I use big bold text and leave nothing else on the slides. So there is really nothing on the slideshow that my bosses or customers want to stare at. Instead I get the attention by,

    > starting with a joke (it works!)
    > using the white board when the story becomes intense
    > dramatic and realistic clip art (real images from Office Online Clipart gallery)
    > talking, singing, moving alot,
    > looking in the eye and inviting conflict, or debate or discussion
    > tell more jokes when things are hot

    But I agree that not every one tells the same story or has similar job. For eg. if you have to present the findings of a merger evaluation, you are bound to have lots of numbers. But in most cases, the audience too will have the caliber to understand and not yawn at such information.

    Thanks for the post 🙂

  6. Thanks, Chandoo. I can’t sing, but I also try to get my message across using images instead of charts or even bullet points. I like Presentation Zen’s style. And I’d like to play with Prezi, if I had the time.

    Well, there is some satire behind the links: most of them point to posts that say exactly the opposite… 🙂

  7. Call me old fashioned, but in my opinion if you are boring your audience and your boss is yawning that means you are not telling the right story and no amount of charts of whatever splendor is going to fix that. To fix that you need fix your story.

  8. Thanks Jorge! This is a fantastic article. I’ll make sure to point people to this as a resource for creating stunning charts.

    MSFT Office Outreach

  9. nixnut is right!

    I think we need to always show our stuff effectively with the best possible dv practices, i.e. the purest approach (which does not necessarily mean unattractive). In a presentation, we’re trying to sell the outcome of the project. If that’s done well, we will subtly and simultaneously have sold ourselves. It may never result in a rise up the corporate ladder as such, but we will gained respect and a reputation that will have people calling upon us for the challenging jobs that no one else seems to able to deliver on.

    Boring presentations are often those that we’re not interested in (wrong audience), too much detail (use a handout) or the presenter reading the slides for me.


  10. “Boring presentations are often those that we’re not interested in (wrong audience), too much detail (use a handout) or the presenter reading the slides for me.”

    Spot on. Although for me obvious data with obvious analysis is the real killer. If the chart tells you something surprising about your business, no one’s going to care what colour it is, they’re all going to listen. First, really understand understand your data, then present the interesting bits.

  11. Hello, Jorge.

    I’m a frequent reader of your blog and owner of you dashboard tutorial. I recently discovered a excel add-on called think cell from a collegue that works in the same company (but in Germany).

    It really speeds up the setting and maintainance of charts in the business environment, and it follows good data visualization principles.

    I wanted to know what are you thoughts about this tool since I google this to find reviews from the experts and can’t find it from nobody.


Comments are closed.