Getting Rid of Those (F)Ugly Charts

6a00d8341e992c53ef015433b3a9d4970cIt’s rare to see a corporate slide deck today that doesn’t start with “defining the business case” either via some statistics, charts, or newspaper clippings. Although not entirely inappropriate to throw up some charts (pun intended), I find most examples to be lacking in either punch, clarity, or aesthetics–sometimes all three.

Here is the process I use to maximize the effectiveness of any stats or charts that I’m presenting.

Narrow the Narrative

  • Determine what it is about the chart that underpins your primary value proposition
  • Figure out exactly what it is about the chart that drives your use case
  • Is there a way you can frame this point to give it urgency

By going through these bullets you should have a crisp sense of the key supporting evidence that aligns to the business case and conveys a sense of urgency.

Remove Extraneous Data

  • Remove any data or figures that don’t demonstrate contrast
  • Remove dimensions of the data that are redundant, if you can get by comparing two time series, don’t show three
  • For trends, you don’t need to plot every time series, most of the time it is good enough to show current state vs a historical time period that conveys the change in the dataset you want to demonstrate

After these steps, you’ll realize you’re not even working with a chart any longer. It will more closely resemble a fact or figure. This is exactly the point.

Maximize Visual Impact (but don’t cheat!)

  • With your greatly reduced dataset, determine the most interesting aspect of the figure. Rather than illustrate a change from 33% to 66% over a period of time, you want to emphasize a “100% growth” over that time
  • Use contrasting colors commensurate with the message. The “before” figure goes in green, the “after” in red to denote an urgent change
  • Use proportionately big visual indicators (thick, jarring lines; really tall bars; etc) to again increase contrast
  • Forego graph details such as series markers and legends in favor of bold text shouting out the key finding
  • Resist the urge to “cheat” by compressing the time series on an axis, for example showing a change in percentage using a y-axis range of 5-10%. Use the full 1-10% axis or come up with a better way to show the change. It rarely fools anyone and it’s a pet peeve of many an analyst

Before and After

Before – Here’s something I would expect to see from many vendors in my space:


After – Here’s what I would end up using:




  • The “before” has a lot of terminology that distracts from what I want my prospect to focus on
  • Note the imprecise use of qualitative terms “high” and “low”. What does that even mean to me?
  • There is a conflicting use of the y-axis for both tools and sophistication which move in inverse = confusing
  • This is the IT world, does anyone care what happened before 2005?
  • There is nothing visceral or memorable that a prospect can latch onto and remember

Thought Process

  • I need my prospect to understand exactly how easy it’s gotten to launch a sophisticated cyber attack
  • Forget about attack techniques, my customers know about them all too well
  • I need something quantitative that is alarming and memorable. There isn’t a datapoint in the “before” I can use
  • Research what it would take to┬álaunch an advanced attack if I’m less sophisticated
  • Wow, only $40, I didn’t realize that and I bet neither do my customers. That’s it!
  • Keep it simple, use a simple font, size it appropriately for impact, and use contrasting colors


TSE moral of the story: Never use a chart when a soundbite is all that you need!