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MBA Essentials
FEB 15, 2018

Getting Good with Numbers: How to Pick the Perfect Graph for Your Message

By Kenichi Suzuki, Translated by Karl O’Callaghan
iStock image/erhui1979

Logic is how we make a message persuasive and ensure our efforts don’t go to waste. Without logic, any graph could lead to erroneous conclusions or opinions.

The good news is, to arrive at logic, you don’t have to think too hard. In fact, all you have to do is ask yourself three questions:

Before you embark on full-scale data collection, look at the information you already have. Think about what you want to say. Ask yourself what you want to compare. Remember, the essence of analysis is comparison.

In every business, phrases like “huge impact” or “extremely effective” get tossed around the office every day. They sound great, but without context, they’re just hot air. “Huge impact” or “effective” compared to what?

When you put your message into words, be mindful of what you are comparing it to. This is how you demonstrate its impact or effectiveness. A message supported by analysis is much stronger and persuasive.

Once you know your message and what you’re comparing, you’re far closer to your goal. Next, you’ll need to visualize it.

The table below demonstrates the best graph suited to each type of comparison. Graphs speak the language of numbers, so they’re much easier to work with than words. There are, in fact, only five variations: pie charts, bar charts, column charts, line graphs, and dot graphs.

The types of information we might compare are the components of a whole (meaning, they add up to 100%). Some examples are market share or ways of spending money. Components are best represented by a pie chart.

Items are not necessarily parts of a whole. They are usually compared side by side in a bar chart or columns.

A time series refers to ongoing or finite periods, while frequency is about how often something happens. In business, we often see time represented in quarterly or annual sales reports, while frequency might be used in reporting product use by customers. Time or frequency references usually appear at the bottom of a line graph or column chart.

The king of graphs, the scatter plot, is a type of dot graph. It compares data from a correlation viewpoint.

It couldn’t be easier – just three simple questions and five options for expressing ourselves with graphs. Just remember: logic and clarity are key. Decide what you want to compare, and then choose the right graph to tell your story.