Pet Peeve #42: Bad Graphs

Disclaimer: I have a lot of respect for eMarketer. They do great work, and although I’m picking on one of their graphs, I mean them no disrespect.

OK, with that out of the way, take a look at graph below. See anything wrong?

Here’s what ticks me off about it: The 58.4% bar stretches all the way across the graph.

Think about this for a moment. This chart can be translated into words: “Talent was cited by 58.4% of marketers as a web analytics challenge. Actionability was mentioned by 47.3%. Finding insights was the third most frequently mentioned challenge…..” And so on.

What a snooze that would be. That’s why we use charts and graphs — they’re a more efficient (and perhaps effective) way to communicate something.

But when you stretch a 58.4% bar all the way across your graph you diminish the efficiency of the graph because you make viewers work harder than they have to to interpret the graph. A bar that occupied about half the space allotted to the graph would be perceived as having a value of about 50%.

But in the graph above, with the 58.4% bar taking up the whole space, it’s not only not intuitive that the value is 58.4%, but it makes it harder to interpret the other bars.

I see this kind of thing in a lot of presentations. Sometimes it’s the result of not consciously thinking about, but sometimes it is intentional. Like stretching a 20% bar across the space of a graph is going to make people think that 20% is a really big number.

Next time you construct a graph and chart for a presentation, think about how you use the space. And round the percentages down to no decimal places (exception: when the numbers are less than 10%).  When people have to work harder than they should to understand what you’re talking about, you’ve lost a little of your potential effectiveness as a presenter.

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