5 Exciting Alternatives to Boring PowerPoint Charts and Tables

May 4, 2011 | By | 8 Comments

I was presenting the Mindworks Presentation Method to a team at Microsoft this week and I asked them what challenges they had creating PowerPoint slides. One person commented they wanted to know how to make dry, boring slides more exciting.

Their exact words were “The slides were so dry, you could have started a fire.”

Fair enough. Here are five ways to present dry data in more exciting ways.

1. Sankey Diagram. Rather than present data in a table, you can convert it into this slick-looking Sankey Diagram. These diagrams use lines of different widths to show how something flows through a system, like cash flowing through an income statement or customers flowing through a website. The width of the line indicates the value (the length of the line has no meaning).  Creating it takes some artistic skill and patience creating shapes and aligning them perfectly. But it looks pretty slick, doesn’t it?

After: Sankey Diagram Before: Table

2. Proportional Diagram. This diagram replaces a boring pie chart. By using shapes (like circles) to represent each percentage, the audience sees these as “real things” and not just an abstract glob of pie chart. For instance, if each circle represents a number of customers, the audience can feel how much work is involved in winning back these customers. See Dave Paradi’s video for a larger discussion of proportional diagrams. Stephen Few calls them unit charts.

After: Proportional Diagram Before: Pie Chart

3. Logo charts. When you have a series of stacked bar charts side by side, it’s sometimes difficult to see patterns and compare the values of each bar. Instead, you can create a diagram that ranks these items. Logo charts are an invention of Jon Moon (named because it may involve representing different companies or products as logos, rather than text) and explained in his book How to Make an Impact.

After: Logo Chart Before: Stacked Bar Charts

4. Deviation bar chart. When you have data with two opposite values (like negative/positive) it’s better to create a common baseline so the height of the negative and positive values are more obvious. To create a deviation bar chart with a common baseline, just use a negative number instead of a positive number for the negative value (eg. For “Disagree”, change “2″ to “-2″ in Excel). Voila! The negative values shift into negative territory and create an invisible baseline

After: Deviation Bar Chart Before: Stacked Bar Charts

5. Stacked text chart. Instead of showing a table with yes/no values for different columns, convert that into a stacked text chart. Color code the yes boxes a dark color and the no boxes gray. Add thick white borders to the table cells to separate the boxes, or else create the boxes using shapes and leave whitespace between them.

After: Stacked Text Chart Before: Yes/No Table

What other ideas do you have for making boring data slides more exciting? Leave a comment below.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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Comments (8)

Links to this Post

  1. Be sexy, but mind the details | Sankey Diagrams | November 10, 2011
  1. Thanks Bruce – great ideas.

    Also really like your post on slopegraphs – I’d not heard of them, but they sound extremely useful. (http://speakingppt.com/2011/08/17/slopegraphs1/)

    With the idea (above) of using a stacked text chart, I’d like to apply that to a table I’ve published, but I can’t think of a way to arrange the rows & columns so the stacks are contiguous. Any ideas? (See http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/answer-peoples-key-question-first-framework-part-1a/#involve_people)

    • Hi Craig – I looked at the table and it looks pretty good. Since you only have one row with all 3 boxes filled, you are going to have to live with some contiguity issues, but I think you’ve minimized it pretty well.

      If you don’t mind, I’d like to use this example and do a bit of a table makeover. I’ll provide more thoughts about the contiguity issue in that post.


      Bruce Gabrielle

  2. Yes, by all means do a makeover on the table. I’d be interested to see your take on it.

  3. Here’s my thoughts, Craig. Thanks for letting me use your table as an educational exercise.

    http://speakingppt.com/2012/01/09/table-makeover-how-do-i-avoid-that-checkerboard-effect/

  4. Some really great tips Bruce. It is true that more effort has to be put in nowadays, to make presentations exciting. Do you agree with the ‘death by PowerPoint’ opinion? Perhaps normal PowerPoint slides just aren’t enough any more. It is true that people are more attracted by things that are visual and so facts and data can be retained more easily if they are made visually appealing. A lot of people are beginning to use interactive presentation software and there are so many to choose from. They are far more effective and may even be the future of presentations.

    • Hi Lucas – Thanks for an important question: should we be moving further away from text slides toward picture slides, and from complex slides to simple slides. And my answer is: it’s more complicated that that.

      Some ideas are best expressed as text. Some ideas are clearer with text and pictures together. I do agree I see a lot of text slides that could be improved with pictures. But they could also be improved with better use of text: less text, more skimmable text, different font sizes. A study was done in 2007 testing if students learned more from bullet points or pictures. In this study, students learned more from text slides. But it really depends on the topic. If the topic is inherently visual (eg. how volcanoes work) then pictures will be more useful because the student needs a visual to understand the spatial concept. But not all topics are spatial.

      As for simpler slides: it again depends. Some ideas are complex and we just need to present those complex ideas better. For instance, remove text from the slide that we plan to speak, using animation to build up a complex slide, using props instead of slides, using stories or analogies to present a complex idea before layering on the details. But generally, I do agree there’s a real need to learn how to present complex material on a slide.

      My one caution is to not fall into the trap of just blindly following presentation experts. The issue is more complex than just “use picture slides” with simplistic examples to prove the point. There are valid arguments for text slides and there are valid argument for complex slides. It’s not a matter of moving away from one toward the other, but using text and complex slides more effectively.

      Here’s why: there are many types of presentations with different goals: to entertain, to persuade, to inform, to teach, to tee up a discussion, etc. The main goal of a business/sales/training presentation is not to “engage” — it’s to help the audience make a decision or improve their skills. Engagement keeps them interested. But it’s the content of the slides that helps them decide or improve.

      • Thank you for you reply Bruce and I understand what you are saying. I guess the goal is to present the ideas and information in a way that will add value. This is of course, as you said, very specific to whatever it is you are presenting. I suppose pictures and graphs should only be used if they add real value.

        I think a lot of people struggle with cutting down their text. When you find so much information and it is all relevant, it can be so easy to put all of it in a presentation for fear that you will leave something out but that isn’t what presenting is about. How would you advice someone on dealing with this problem?

        A agree that there needs to be a right balance between engagement and the quality of the content.

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