Clarifying Charts in PowerPoint


Graphs (Microsoft calls them “charts”) are a visual way to present numerical data, often financial. But, because charts can present too much information in one shot, they can overload an audience. In addition, some chart forms can obscure information. While these properties can be useful to the unscrupulous, I assume, dear reader, that your soul is pure.

What do I mean by overload and why should you care? Experts tell us that people absorb information better when it is presented in small chunks. But there is another effect that can be deadly. When your audience is presented with a slide full of information, the natural reaction is to start to puzzle out the content. During this time, the audience is distracted and their audio perception can be restricted. That is, the audience may not “hear” your narration. Eventually, the audience members will surface and try to re-sync with your story. Or, even worse, since they “know” the content of the slide, their attention will wander.

Essentially, the presenter looses control of the audience. So, if you think you can present a bunch of stuff and “talk your audience through it,” you’re wrong.

The good folks over at Acme Services provide an example chart showing the contribution of each line of business to the annual revenue total over a six year period:


This is a standard Excel stacked bar chart with data labels on each series (business) and a legend. With a stacked bar chart, it may be difficult to perceive trends within each series since the stacked segments do not line up horizontally. The designer has added the data labels in an attempt to overcome this problem but the result is numeric instead of visual. And the chart is clearly crowded.

Here’s a relatively straightforward animation that allows the presenter to display each business, one at a time, and discuss as needed before displaying the next:

Here are some notes:

  • In Excel, I created the chart and made some edits to the default stacked bar chart (I am not an Excel guru):
    • Accepted the fill colors (I used the same theme in Excel as in PowerPoint).
    • Modified the default range and increment for the vertical axis.
    • Added a legend.
    • Set the overall chart size to fit the slide layout.
    • Set the chart area background to transparent.
    • Added data labels.
    • Set font sizes (20 pts for the data labels, 24 pts elsewhere).
    • Set the number format to two decimal places; more is pointless.
  • I copied the chart in Excel and used Paste Special/Office Graphic Object to place it on the slide.  With this option, you can access and manipulate elements of the chart (axes, data series, etc.).
    • This option links to the source Excel spreadsheet so that a user of the PowerPoint file can access the original data; this may not be a good idea. The spreadsheet must be local to the PowerPoint file so the link is easily broken or you can always rename the spreadsheet.
    • The Excel Chart Object option embeds the source spreadsheet as well as the chart into PowerPoint so that the data can be edited within the PowerPoint file. I generally do not select this option because I (or somebody else) own the source data/spreadsheet and do not want unsynchronized copies floating around in copies of the PowerPoint presentation.
    • The other Paste Special options create uneditable images of the chart.
  • In PowerPoint, I created a new legend that aligned better with the data series and added a text box to summarize the total revenue by year (I couldn’t figure out how to do this in Excel). Note that these are separate PowerPoint objects, not additions to the chart.
  • Here’s the (static) result:

chart2The next step is to animate the chart; here are some notes:

  • As I noted above, this form (Graphic Object) of the chart consists of several components; a pull-down in the Chart Tools/Format ribbon lists those components:


  • To animate the Series components, select the chart object and apply an animation (Wipe/From Left). If you preview at this stage, you will find that the whole chart is animated. To fix this, open the Effect Options and select the By Series option. (This would be more straightforward if the chart object was treated as an ordinary group but that’s not the PowerPoint way.)
  • Open the Animation Pane. Now that the Series objects appear in the animation pane, you can complete the animation in the usual way. Here’s the final animation pane:


  • The result is a mix of chart elements (e.g., Series) and ordinary PowerPoint objects (e.g., Group 3 is the legend for Series 1).

Here’s another way to present the revenue data:

Now, each business is presented separately, followed by the stacked bar chart as a summary. With this approach, some details emerge visually. For example, it is clear that the consulting business is not performing well, the call center business has recovered from a slight slump, and the tech support business did not sustain its growth last year.

The challenge in this approach is assuring that each separate chart is to the same scale and that the charts are aligned.

I hope that you have learned from this discourse that you are not stuck with the standard Excel charts but that you can help your audience quickly understand your data with a combination of Excel and PowerPoint tools and a little imagination.

If you would like a free PowerPoint file including these examples, use the form below:


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