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How to Select the Best Type of Chart to Visualize Your Data

Data visualization has become increasingly important for communicating in the digital age.

Charts and graphs can communicate data more clearly and effectively than text or rows and columns on spreadsheets. Visuals help audiences understand numbers faster and better. Well-designed charts and graphs enable viewers to grasp insights that were not obvious and incorporate those insights into their decision-making.

PR communications that include data visualizations stand out and rise above text-only content to gain the attention of journalists, business decision-makers and consumers who are inundated with information. A well-designed graphic can prompt an editor to publish your press release rather than a competitor’s. Some say data visualization has become a must-have skill for public relations.  Some PR agencies now tout their skills in visualizing data to potential clients.

The first hurdle to overcome is selecting the right type of chart or graph. Certain types of data best fit certain types of visuals.

Four Basic Types of Graphs and Charts

Jānis Gulbis at business intelligence firm eazyBI cites four basic types of graphs and charts that present data:

  • Comparison,
  • Composition,
  • Distribution,
  • Relationship.

Unless you are a statistician or a data analyst, you most likely use the comparison and composition charts, Gulbis notes.

To determine the chart that best suited for your data, answer these questions:

How many variables do you want to show in a single chart? One, two, three, many?

How many items (data points) will you display for each variable? Only a few or many?

Will you display values over a period of time, or among items or groups?

“Bar charts are good for comparisons, while line charts work better for trends,” he explains. “Scatter plot charts are good for relationships and distributions, but pie charts should be used only for simple compositions — never for comparisons or distributions.”

Tables are for comparison, composition, or relationship analysis when there are only few variables and data points. The column chart, probably the most common type of chart, is best used to compare different values when specific values are important.

The Purpose of the Data is Key

Jami Oetting at Hubspot explains how to select the right chart or graph for your data visualization and offers an in-depth analysis of pros and cons of different types of visuals.

Comparisons. To compare values and to show the low and high values in data sets consider column, bar, circular area, line, scatter plot and bullet charts.

A bullet chart. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Composition. To show the composition of something, use pie charts, stacked bar, stacked column or area waterfall charts.

An area chart. Image souce: Hubspot

Distribution. Distribution charts help you to understand outliers, the normal tendency, and the range of information in your values. Use scatter plot, line column or bar charts to portray distribution.

A bar chart. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Trends. If you wish to study how something performed over a specific time period, consider a line, dual-axis line or column chart.

A dual axis chart. Image source: Hubspot

Relationships. Relationship charts are good for demonstrating how one variable influences, or doesn’t influence, one or more other variables. These include the scatter plot, bubble or line charts.

A scatter plot: Image source: Hubspot

Bottom Line: Charts and graphs, also known as data visualizations, provide communications professionals an important advantage in depicting data to make it easier for audiences to understand. Selecting the type of visual that’s best-suited for your data and your purpose is essential if you hope to educate and persuade colleagues, customers and corporate leaders. Following key principles in selecting chart format assures the greatest impact.