Say It With Charts (Gene Zelazny) Book Review

The ideas in Say It With Charts are simple. So simple, in fact, you’ll actually end up using them. And they will make a huge impact on how to choose which charts you use.

Zelazny introduces you to five different kinds of charts (column chart, line chart, bar chart, pie chart and scatterplot). Then he shows you how to choose the right chart

  1. What is the main message in your chart?
  2. What are the keywords in that message?
  3. Which chart matches those keywords? For instance, if sales are “rising” then that indicates a line chart or column chart. If students is the largest “percentage” of your sales, that suggests a pie chart. Here’s Zelazny’s chart chooser.

There are different variations on each chart. For instance, a bar chart could be a deviation bar chart, a paired bar chart, a sliding bar chart, and so on. Zelazny covers practical issues like data labels, bar colors and when to use dotted lines or arrows to reinforce the graph’s message.

The book includes practice activities and the hand-drawn graphs are a treat to look at.

The second half of the book is less valuable. It includes page after page of concept diagrams and visual metaphors that range from useful (flow charts) to pointless (drawings of office machinery?). The book was originally published in 1985, so perhaps the images are meant to be photocopied and were more relevant before the age of SmartArt. Or perhaps these are simply intended to provide inspiration.

The book actually stumbles badly in the final chapter on PowerPoint slide design, showing some of the worst-looking slides you’ll ever see (yellow text on black background!). To be fair, we’ve learned a lot about slide design since 1985 and PowerPoint’s design tools have gotten better. Perhaps it’s time to refresh this section completely.

Despite the book’s questionable second half, I strongly recommend Say It With Charts. The ideas are simple and it will drastically improve your graphing skills. Ignore the last half of the book. If you like, tear the book in half and throw the second half away. The first half of the book is worth the full price.

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.