Slopegraphs are your friend. Tables secretly hate you.

Slopegraphs are your Friend. Tables secretly hate you.

Hate is a strong word. Since the table of facts and figures in your business presentation are probably not animate, they’re probably not capable of strong emotion. So hate’s off the table (hah!), but trust me, they’re not doing you any favors. Consider — you’re presenting a business case, or in the middle of your ops review. You get to the slide with your shiny table of facts and figures. Here’s the proof that you know your stuff, and that’s where the whole presentation goes off the rails.

Your boss, or your bosses boss, asks a question about a number in the corner of your table. Not a number you wanted to talk about. Not a number that’s pivotal to your case or business, but it’s there. And then he drills down.

Tables aren’t inherently bad. But they are used too much in presentations, and have some problems.

Good – they’re useful to look up actual numbers. They’re very easy to cut and paste.

Bad – they’re usually difficult to read, with small text. Column and row titles get shortened to acronyms to save space. And they sometimes contain numbers you don’t want to talk about.

Here’s one alternative to your table — the slopegraph.

The Slopegraph

Slopegraphs were first introduced by Edward Tufte in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in 1983. He called them Table Graphics. An accurate, if uninspiring* name.

Edward-Tufte---Original-Slopegraph

 

This is Tufte’s table graphic. Today, you would call it a slopegraph. It’s essentially 3 columns of data:

Country | 
Receipts as a % of GDP 1970 |
Receipts as a % of GDP 1979 |

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, it’s useful for showing the hierarchy of the data elements, how the data has changed over time, and most significantly, the rate of change. You can also easily see anything bucking the trend.

This information about your data is exactly what your audience is looking for. Only savants would glance at a table and see rate of change and bucking the trend.

Turn a Table into a Slopegraph.

Take this interesting data from the 2013 Customer Rage Research Study. It’s 3 Columns of data, in a legible, but ugly table.What Customers Who Complain Really Want

Now look at the same table, redrawn as a slopegraph.

Customer Service is never having to say "I'm Sorry"
What you can clearly see from the slopegraph, and  you have to think about to understand from the table, is that customers don’t get what they want when it comes to service. You can also see that what they want doesn’t really cost the company any money. There’s more thinking involved to get this from the table.  I’ve made a few more tweaks in this example, like tying in the headline to the idea of a real apology. Depending on your audience, and your presentation style, you may not want to use irony in the headline.

More Great Slopegraph examples.

Here are a few more examples of slopegraphs in action.

CN2-

 Slopegraph featured on Naomi Robbins Forbes data visualization blog by Cole Nussbaumer. Interactive Slope Chart from the Washington Post. Featured by Jon Schwabish on thumbs up viz
By Kaiser Fung at Junk Charts. He calls this a Bumps Chart, covering the success rate of projects at kickstarter. top-ten-salaries-slope-graph_large_mini
By Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez for Smashing Magazine, showing salary ranges at Google.

Using Excel to Make Slopegraphs.

I made my slopegraph using Adobe Illustrator, but most people’s go-to charting tool is Excel. John Peltier has a good article on how to use Excel to make slopegraphs. If you like that idea, but don’t want to play around with Excel too much, Cole Nussbaumer has created a handy downloadable template for slopegraphs.

Cole Nussbaumer's Excel Slopegraph Template
Cole Nussbaumer’s Excel Slopegraph Template

One last point, if you’ve read this far. The stricter Data Visualizers may note that slopegraphs sometimes have other names, bumpcharts, slopegraphs, ladder charts and Tufte’s original name, table graphics.  I realize I am not using strict definitions. For more on that, see Charlie Park’s excellent A Slopegraph Update.

 

* If you’re inventing something, you have to give it a good name.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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