Directly Labeling in Excel

It’s time to ditch the legend. You know – the legend, the key, the thing to the right of the graph that tells the reader what each piece of your graph means. We don’t need it. Legends are actually hard for many people to work with because they put a burden on the reader to seek and match up each line with its legend entry. It’s better if we just label the lines directly.

So (and this is the super fun part) click on the legend and delete it. Just hit your delete key. Smile. It feels good.


Oh but did you notice how your graph resized when you deleted the legend? We need room there for our labels so click inside the middle of the graph, in the white area (called the Plot Area) so that it is activated. You’ll see square handles at the corners and along the sides. Drag the side handle to the left to make room.


Now we have a space to add the labels. There are two ways to do this.

Way #1

Click on one line and you’ll see how every data point shows up. If we add a label to every data points, our readers are going to mount a recall election. So carefully click again on just the last point on the right.

Now right-click on that last point and select Add Data Label.

THIS IS WHEN YOU BE CAREFUL. If it says “Labels” as in plural it is going to add a label to every point on your line. You must not have selected the last point carefully enough. Try again and make sure it says “Label” singular.

If it pops in your value instead of the name of your series, right-click on it again and select Format Data Label (WATCH FOR THE PLURAL/SINGULAR BUSINESS HERE). In the dialogue box that opens, check Series and uncheck Value. Boom.


Way #2

Insert a text box at the end of the line and type the label name. You know how to insert a text box, right? Of course you do! You just probably never did so inside Excel. But it works! Insert>Textbox then draw the textbox in the graph and type away.


Did you forget the name of your line? Hover on it and Excel will tell you. The nice thing about the textboxes is that you can change the label to say whatever you want.


Both methods have definite pros and cons so it’s good to know how to do both. Whichever way you pick, your audience is going to be grateful that you’ve saved them from the mental gymnastics of a typical legend.

This process scores full points on the “Data are labeled directly” item on our Data Visualization Checklist

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  1. Catching up on my blog reading and ran across this. I have been using “Way #2” and I hate it. I will try your first method. Thanks for your clarity (and occasional hilarity).

    1. Look back at the third screenshot, where I checked Series Name. There’s also a check box there for Value. That’s what you want.

  2. “We need room there for our labels so click inside the middle of the graph, in the white area (called the Plot Area) so that it is activated. You’ll see square handles at the corners and along the sides. Drag the side handle to the left to make room.”

    This doesn’t seem to work when there’s a secondary data-series Y-axis.

  3. Yeah!! Thank you! Of all the predefined chart layouts in Excel, this isn’t in any of them. What a relief to finally get this.

  4. I want to place a descriptive comment near the line at the point something dramatic happened (i.e. Tuned Database) But I want it somehow linked or connected to that part of the graph so that it doesn’t move out of place as the graph extends.

  5. This works great. I have a stacked column graph where is perfect except if one or two of the stacked values are equal to 0. In other words, the stacked column does not include part of the bar. However, the label still appears. Is there any way to not show the data label if the data equals 0? Thanks.

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