A powerful chart tells a story

A powerful chart has a clear message. It should be short and meaningful, and obvious in the blink of an eye. If there’s only one thing our audience remembers at the end of the day, this should be it.

Answering the ‘so what’ question

A visual without a clear key message might show the data, but it doesn’t show what’s interesting, surprising or noteworthy about the data. It leaves our audience guessing, they have to do all of the thinking work. Ideally, we want to create a visual that helps them to quickly see what’s important. A visual that not only answers the ‘what’ question, but more importantly also the ‘so what’ question.

Here’s one of my favourite examples to illustrate the importance of visual storytelling. This chart shows the evolution of meat consumption in the US since the 1960s. By itself, this chart is pretty clear. It shows us the data, in a way that is easy to understand. It answers the ‘what’ question. The design is satisfactory, with pleasing colours and good readability. But can it be improved?

US per capita consumption of poultry and livestock

Here is an attempt at a rework. Even though we’re looking at exactly the same data – we wouldn’t want to lie to our audience! – the message in this new visual is loud and clear. It’s right there in the title: Americans are eating more chicken than ever before!

Americans are eating more chicken than ever before

The power of data visualization at work

Two simple changes turned the original ‘what’ visual into this super-clear ‘so what’ visual.

  • First of all, clever colour choices: the line that interests us – the one for chicken consumption – gets a bright orange colour, the other two become grey. They’re still there, but pushed a bit to the background.
  • Secondly, clever text: the original title was very factual – ‘US per capita consumption of poultry and livestock’. All the thinking work is left for the reader. But what if we simply tell them the interesting part? The new title ‘Americans are eating more chicken than ever before’ is still 100% true, but now it tells us why this visual is actually quite surprising.

These two small but impactful changes turned the original visual, which simply shows the data, into a great visual that actually tells a story. For me, that’s the real power of data visualization at work.

If you want to know more about visualizing data in the right way, you can check out the other videos in this series. Or I invite you to read my book, Powerful Charts, that will give you actionable insights and practical guidelines to create data visuals that truly engage and inspire your audience.

Read more:

thumbnail for video 10 - can you use excel to create a powerful chart

Can you use Excel to create a powerful chart?

Spreadsheet tools such as Microsoft Excel or Numbers might not be the first thing on your mind when considering data visualization tools, but they can be pretty solid choices to build data visuals. Don’t let anyone convince you that using Excel to create data visuals is unprofessional.

More info

thumbnail for video 09 - choosing the right font for your data visual

Choosing the right font for your data visual

Fonts evoke emotions: there are very sophisticated fonts, playful fonts, attention-grabbing fonts, and elegant handwritten fonts. Using the wrong type of font can have a lot of impact. In data visualization the implications of typography are mainly focused on readability. Labels and annotations can easily become so small they get hard to read. Above all else, we should choose a font which is readable at small sizes.

More info

thumbnail for video 08 - three roles of colour in a data visual

Three roles of colour in a data visual

Colour is one of the most crucial tools we have to turn a normal chart into a powerful chart with a clear message, a chart which tells a story rather than simply presenting the information.

More info

thumbnail for video 07 - 7 different goals for your chart

7 different goals for your chart

A crucial step in building a powerful chart is choosing the right type of chart. A lot of charts don’t work because they simply use the wrong type of chart. To avoid this trap, we must ask ourselves a basic question: what’s the ultimate goal of our data visual? What do we want to show with our data?

More info

thumbnail for video 06 - making a data visual noise-free

Making a data visual noise-free

Removing noise from a data visual is not only about taking things away such as gridlines, axes or legends. That’s just one part of it, which we could call removing physical noise. Improving the signal-to-noise ratio is often also about adding little things that help our audience better understand the visual. We are helping them by removing mental noise, or mental barriers.

More info

Three tips to create powerful charts in Excel

Creating charts in Excel can be a very powerful tool for making sense of complex data sets, and for visualizing them. But the default options are not always the most pretty or effective ones. Here are our top three tips to create better Excel charts.

More info

We are really into visual communication!

Every now and then we send out a newsletter with latest work, handpicked inspirational infographics, must-read blog posts, upcoming dates for workshops and presentations, and links to useful tools and tips. Leave your email address here and we’ll add you to our mailing list of awesome people!