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Bar, Line or Pie? How to Choose the Right Graph for Your Data

Sammi Caramela
Sammi Caramela

When you're giving a business presentation, you probably know that data is easier to understand when it's shown in visual form, rather than as a string of numbers. But you can't just make a bar graph or pie chart for everything and call it a day. You need to choose the right graphing tools to make your data intelligible and visually appealing.

Mike Kaplan, an employee of digital marketing firm Workshop Digital, said that determining the best way to display data can be difficult, and it's not always intuitive.

"Mastering this art — particularly in digital marketing, where data sets can be murky, correlations hard to extract and results difficult to explain — is essential," Kaplan wrote in a blog post. "Data visualization plays a key role in maintaining client relationships and increasing their understanding of your work and results."

A well-designed graph should be easy enough to understand that a child can quickly scan it and gather the insights it was designed to reveal, said Kaplan. Here's what every presenter should know about visualizing data. [See Related Story: 36 Ways to Make a Killer Business Presentation]

Types of data visualization

According to Workshop Digital, these are the most common types of graphs and charts. Kaplan explained what each one is and when to use it.

1. Scatter plots. These are used to express relationships and correlations between different variables. If you have more than 10 data points, arrange them on a horizontal axis.

2. Column charts. Positioned vertically, these are used to show change over time between variables that have the same unit of measurement. Use a column chart if you want to display minimum and maximum values.

3. Bar chart. These are laid out horizontally and used to compare data across different categories, ideally between five and eight. Place your values on the X-axis (horizontal) and categories on the Y-axis (vertical).

4. Line charts. Like bar charts, line charts are used to reveal data trends over time. They are ideal for data sets that are too big for a column or a bar.

4. Combination charts. You can use a combination of two or more different charts to compare variables that have different units of measurement or sizes. Use these charts when you want to measure values that are significantly different in range.

5. Pie charts. As the name implies, pie charts are shaped like a circle and divided into parts to show relative proportions and percentages of a whole data set. The different sections of pie chart data should be of comparable size.

6. Stacked columns. Like pie charts, stacked columns are used to show the structures of five to eight categories in subgroups. This type of graph works well when you have too many categories for a pie chart.

7. Stacked areas. These are used to show the magnitude of change over time. Stacked areas should be used with fewer than eight data points.

8. Histograms. These graphs display the distribution of data. Unlike a regular column chart, there are no spaces between columns on a histogram. Use this type of graph for data across various groups.

9. Venn diagrams. The overlapping circles of a Venn diagram are used to compare two data sets and show the differences and commonalities between them.

"These are not the only charts or graphs a digital marketer should use, but they are some of the most familiar to a working professional," Kaplan wrote. "All are easy to understand and easy to create."

Most of these graphs and charts can be constructed using programs like PowerPoint, Excel, Tableau and other presentation software.

Choosing a graphing style by data type

Kaplan offered these additional tips for choosing the right graphing style for your data sets based on the types of data sets and purpose of your graph or chart.

  • For qualitative data (data that can be classified or categorized, but not measured, like satisfaction scores), use regular bar graphs, side-by-side bar graphs and pie charts.
  • For quantitative data (data sets that are measurable, like numbers of conversion rates), use histograms, line charts, bar charts and column charts.
  • When comparing values, use column, bar, line and scatter-plot charts.
  • When showing the distribution of data, use scatter-plot, line, column and bar charts.
  • When analyzing trends in data, use line and column charts.
  • When showing the relationship between data sets, use scatter-plot and line charts.

Ready to give your presentation? Check out this Business News Daily articlefor advice on engaging your audience.

Image Credit: / Shutterstock
Sammi Caramela
Sammi Caramela
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't writing for and Business News Daily, she's writing (and furiously editing) her first novel, reading a YA book with a third cup of coffee, or attending local pop-punk concerts. She is also the content manager for Lightning Media Partners. Check out her short stories in "Night Light: Haunted Tales of Terror," which is sold on Amazon.