Make Your Data Powerful: Strip Down Bar Charts

Make your data powerful strip down bar chartsBar charts are readily available, easy to read, and a staple of data presentation. To progress in presentation power, it’s time to strip down bar charts to improve their impact.

Too many times we see bar charts that bog down a presentation or report. For less technical audiences, use of a bar chart or other ‘technical’ data will often cause them to tune out altogether.

So what are we to do when the very data which informs and validates our message isn’t received well…………or at all?

Simplify! simplify! Simplify!

What is your message?

That’s right. The first thing you need to decide is – what message or story you are telling.

Then edit, edit, and edit to ensure focus is maintained around that story. Strip down your bar chart until it can communicate the message as quickly and easily as possible. As an engineer one of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn is editing for focus.

What I want to do is give you all of the background, justify how I’ve arrived at my conclusion, and take you through the logic. While this may have its place and work well in a technical report, it will bore an audience to tears.

What I need to do is be ruthless in getting to the core of the findings. Let me give you an example.

For one board, I did an analysis of a membership survey as part of a marketing strategy. As part of the analysis I combined tabulated data to get the following chart:

The actual data is not important. By charting the data I was able to see visually some concerning trends. While this chart is good to help arrive at conclusions, it is not the best way to convey the results.

Focus needs to be put on the conclusion that only two-thirds of members are satisfied with their membership and the leadership. Only half are satisfied with club value. To highlight this, the chart can be redone to add better focus and highlight the conclusion.

How much clearer is the second chart? The information is the same. By re-organizing and editing, the focus on the conclusion is amplified. Communication is faster and clearer.

Strip down your bar chart

What does it mean to strip down your bar chart? Take away every distraction.

Going back to the example above, the original chart looks like this:

busy bar chart

Not only are you unsure what the point of this information is, but the color focuses your attention on the satisfied customer section at the top of each bar – which has nothing to do with the conclusions. By stripping down the extras and adding focus, the chart is transformed to this:

stripped down bar chart adjust axis label

If you look closely, you will see that all of the bar charts on this page have the same data, and all but the first are the same charts. The last chart is the one that I will use during the presentation to the board. In the report, the more detailed chart I started with at the beginning of this post is used to support my conclusions.

Steps used to strip down the bar chart

  1. Change color scheme
  2. Remove axis titles
  3. Remove vertical axis
  4. Remove gridlines
  5. Remove chart outline
  6. Remove data labels
  7. Add text boxes to show combined data value at top of each bar
  8. Change color of individual components for emphasis
  9. Edit the title for focus and brevity
  10. Reformat horizontal axis labels to improve visibility

The steps are shown in the presentation below:


A single bar chart is a little easier to work with than a stacked one. For the single bar, the data labels can be added and they will be at the top of each bar. This eliminates a fair bit of effort and time.

Also, the legend can often be removed on a single bar chart because it is redundant.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to improve your data presentation – especially when using bar charts. Please share any tricks you use in the comments below.






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