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Data Visualization: Understanding How To Visualize Your Data


We live in the age of ‘big data’ and it’s at the heart of almost every single business decision.

At a basic level, data is information — facts, figures, words, percentages, measurements, and observations. This information, or data, allows businesses to analyze, study, research, and then make informed decisions based on those findings.

Data is the lynchpin to successful decision making, but it’s not enough.

Data itself is just computerised information. In order for you to make it useful, you need to find creative ways to make it user friendly. This is where the art of data visualization comes in!

In this post you’ll not only learn why data visualizations are critical to your effectiveness as a presenter, you'll discover tips and tricks for visualizing your data to improve the overall effectiveness of your presentations.

As you will see, you don’t have to have a complicated data visualization to effectively get your point across.

But first off…

What is data visualization?

Data visualization is the secret art of turning blah data into visual graphics that people can understand (graphs, charts, infographics, etc.).

Data visualization definition: the representation of information in the form of chart, diagram, picture, etc.

And the reason why it is so important, is because when data is presented visually, it allows the human eye to see trends and patterns that it otherwise can’t see or make out.

Words may be mightier than the sword, but in a battle for our brains, visual images win every time. Colin Ware, author of “Information Visualization: Perception for Design” states,

“The eye and the visual cortex of the brain form a massively parallel processor that provides the highest-bandwidth channel into human cognitive centers.”

Here are a few additional statistics highlighting the importance of data visualisation over text when presenting information:

  • 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual

  • Humans process images 60,000 times faster than text

  • 70% of our sensory receptors are in our eyes

  • 65% of people are visual learners

In short, visual data is easier to remember than words.

Studies have also shown that while only 10-20% of written or spoken data is remembered, that number jumps to 65% for visual information.

So, when it comes to delivering important information in a presentation, representing your data visually ensures it is received faster, understood quicker, and more easily remembered.

Why is data visualization important?

As previously mentioned, we are living in the age of ‘big data’, in fact we’re drowning in it!

As David McCandless, author, data journalist and information designer, stated in his Ted Talk (see video below):

Picture of a quote by David McCandless, by visualizing information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes

To David’s full Ted Talk, click play below:

Data visualization is your map to understanding information and gives you clear directions on where to go next.

On top that, when done properly, data visualization has 5 additional benefits.:

#1. Amplifies your message

Your message is amplified in a few different ways. First of all, by taking the time to create data visualizations you show your audience that you’ve done your homework and that alone gives a sense of credibility to your content.

Without visualizations, you run the risk of your audience not understanding anything you are trying to present. Your data will be meaningless and your entire message, lost.

#2. Gives meaning to your data

Visualizations communicate valuable insights by creating visual representations of your data.

For example, an Excel spreadsheet showing that Microsoft’s sales revenue has almost doubled between 2011 and 2018 isn’t nearly as effective as graphic that data in a simple column with some formatting.

Example of spreadsheet of data versus a formatted chart as a data visualization

And notice how much easier it is to visualize that change in revenue in the picture above on the right.

This also gets into the importance of highlighting your point visually in your data visualizations, which you can learn more about in the video below.

#3. Saves time

Instead of spending the time trying to figure out what the facts and figures mean, your audience members can ENGAGE with the meaning. A visual representation allows you to analyze huge amounts of info in the blink of an eye. As we know, the human eye can recognise and process visual information much faster than text.

#4. Makes for better decision making

Assuming your data visualizations contain correct data and are done properly, you’ll not only be able to make decisions faster, but they will be based on data that you fully comprehend.

#5. Is more shareable and digestible

One of the best things about data visualization is that they are accessible and easier to share across departments, with colleagues, your boss, or with a large audience. They can be inserted in your PowerPoint presentation, printed for seminar handouts, or even posted and shared on social media.

For example, below is a data visualization superimposing the Titanic over the world’s new cruise ship (the Allure of the Seas) to demonstrate that the new ship is almost 5 times bigger.

Picture of the titanic dwarfed by a larger cruise ship, the allure of the seas

Data Visualization Examples

Picture of a quote, there is virtually unlimited freedom in how we represent data

The impact of your visual data is only be good as the visualisation! Here are a few great examples of successful data visualizations to give you an idea of the best way to deliver complex information through visuals:


It’s important to choose the right visualization for the right information. Here are some of the most common data visualization techniques:

Column Chart Example

Bar charts are one of the most popular data visualizations and most commonly used for comparing items over a horizontal time frame, moving left to right.

Example of a column chart graphic Apple's revenue

These specific data visualizations usually work best with less than 15 data points. If you have more than 15 data points, I recommend using a line chart instead.

You will see this type of data frequently used for showing sales figures over a specific time period, with the years running along the x-axis and the unit running along the Y axis, as you can see in the example below showing Apple’s Revenue from 2014 to 2018.

Bar Chart Example

Similar to the bar chart, the column chart is used to compare multiple values outside of a horizontal based time frame.

Bar chart example graphing Apple's percent of sales by product category

This works well for survey data, responses or any other non-date based category. For this type of data visualization you will see the category running up and down the

You can also use two different column charts to show how a category has changed over a specific time period.

Example of two back to back bar charts showing apples percent of sales by product category over time

The two-sided bar chart is a great way to show changes in specific categories over two specific time periods, without having to show all of the information in between those two dates.

Pie Chart and Doughnut Chart Examples

Another familiar visualization technique is the humble doughnut chart (one step better than a pie chart).

Example of a pie chart versus a doughnut chart

The key to making your doughnut charts or pie charts clearer, is to break down your data into two pieces of data to highlight the point you want to make.

For example, if you point is that 85% of survey respondents are using 4 or 5 programs, combine those pieces together and highlight it again the other data as contrasted in the visual below.

Timeline Example

A timeline is a great data visualization technique when you wish to show data in a chronological order and highlighting those important points in time.

To create a Timeline, simply layout your data points along a PowerPoint shape, and mark the data off to visually see your overall project.

Example of a timeline

If you need to create lots of time based timelines like this, I recommend checking out Office Timeline. Their PowerPoint app makes creating timelines and Gantt charts extremely easy.

Venn Diagram Example

The Venn Diagram is a great technique for comparing and contrasting ideas and concepts, especially when showing an overlapping piece is important.

Example of a Venn diagram

For example, in the simple Venn diagram below, your point could be that for a successful launch, you need strategy, execution and commitment.

For help making a Venn diagram in PowerPoint, see How to make a Venn diagram.

Gantt Chart Example

Gantt Charts are particularly useful for project managers as a visualisation technique to show when different phases of a project are starting and stopping over a specific timeline.

Below is an example of a Gantt chart (with a timeline) build entirely using PowerPoint shapes.

Example of a Gantt chart data visualization

Gantt charts like this allow you to organize tasks, team members, timing, potential problems, etc.

To learn how to build out a Gantt chart like this in PowerPoint, see How to make a gantt chart in PowerPoint.

Line Chart Example

Line charts are great when you have lots of data points (more than 15) and you are simply trying to reveal the trend, or show progress over time.

Example of a line chart

They can also be useful for showing multiple categories of continuous data over a period of time.

Infographic Example

Infographics are the business buzzword of the moment. Infographics are a great way to deliver facts and figures in a narrative format which is both attractive and easy to read. They are particularly useful to explain case studies or to summarize complex reports.

Example of an info graphic

You can create your own infographic simply by adding icons, graphics, charts, and formatting your numbers in interesting ways.

Below is an example of a simple infographic I created in Microsoft PowerPoint using nothing but the default PowerPoint icons, fonts and charts. You can obviously make them more complicated if you like.

The goal of an infographic like this is to break down your data points into something visual so that users can more easily digest the information you are presenting them.

Dashboard Example

A dashboard is a data visualization that brings multiple pieces of data (charts, graphics, etc.) onto a single slide, so that you can see the overall health of a situation. Or as explained by Smart Data Collective's Keyan Keihani.

Picture of a quote by Keyan Keihani about dashboards

To create a dashboard, simply create individual graphics of the relevant data points you need to see the overall health or performance of your topic.

For example, your dashboard could be as simple as 3 column charts showing annual sales, annual expenses and annual net income as shown below.

Example of three column charts used to make a reporting dashboard

To keep the above dashboard consistent, I used the same vertical axis value of 130 billion  for each of the 3 column charts, and highlighted the most recent year (2020) with a darker color.

Data Visualization Tips

Don’t forget about titles

Yes, data visualization helps your audience understand data more easily, but if they don’t know what the point of the visualization is then they are still going to struggle.

Instead of making a generic title for your chart, state your point specifically in your title so your audience knows exactly what you are trying to highlight.

Example of a using descriptive titles to label your data visualizations

Give your graph or chart a title and it instantly becomes more readable.

Highlight your main points

Highlighting certain figures, sections or columns helps draw attention to the most important information and can direct your message.

For example, if your bar chart shows high sales figures and low sale figures, depending on the focus of your presentation, you’ll want to highlight different aspects of your data visualization.

To highlight points on your visualizations you can:

Add rectangles or to emphasis particular data points

Example of using a colored rectangle behind your chart to emphasize specific points about your data visualization

Add a ‘call out’ to highlight your point

In the below example I used the Explosion: 14 Point PowerPoint shape to highlight the 100% year-on-year growth.

Example using callouts within a chart to highlight the point you are trying to make

Use colors to highlight your points

In the below example I’ve used darker shape fills to highlight the 2011 and 2018 data, and greyed out all of the other data labels.

Example of using colors to highlight the important points in your data visualization

Simplify Your Pie Charts

Pie charts aren’t our favorite data visualization, but when you do have to use them there are a couple of tips to help you.

Rule of 2s

Format your pie chart to just 2 pieces of data to directs focus and make the most important information stand out and easier to understand.

Example of a doughnut chart in PowerPoint with a text box directly in the center of the doughnut

Use context to highlight your data points

What's next?

Updated on May 24, 2019

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