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How to Rock the Text in your Data Visualization

How to Rock the Text in your Data Visualization

Very recently, Ann Emery and I released the Data Visualization Checklist. It’s thorough and its going to help your data visualization kick some serious ass. In these subsequent posts on each of our blogs, Ann and I will illustrate some of the checklist items to show how a graph can progress from 0 to 2 points.

Today we tackle a graph’s title, subtitle, and annotation, the first two items on the checklist. These babies are a big deal, folks. Why? Because data visualizations typically don’t get all that much text. It’s supposed to be a visual, after all. Which means there’s a ton of power packed into these short bits of text we have to work with.

Most commonly, we don’t take advantage of this power, however. Usually we see zero point graphs that look like this: ChartTitleBeforeWhy do we do this to our readers? They are looking at our graphs because they want to know what we think about student volunteering and leadership but we are refusing to tell them what we think. We probably do this because when we create a graph in Excel, it produces a two-word Chart Title placeholder and we are subconsciously urged to be similarly obtuse and generic. Zero points, yo.

This version would get one point for the title checklist item and two points for the subtitle checklist item: ChartTitlePartialIts improved in that the chart title is in the upper left, where our eyes (in Western culture) would want to begin reading. I also added a subtitle, which gives some helpful information and allows the reader to draw some conclusions about (at least part) of the data.

Even better? This one: ChartTitleAfterTwo more adjustments bring this graph to full points for the first two items on the data visualization checklist: 1) Making the title a declarative sentence. Its adds interpretive power for the reader, who would otherwise think “Cool graph, dog, but does this mean we are good or bad or what?” This way the reader understands the graph’s main takeaway point. Things are looking good. 2) An annotation under the first bar. This additional point brings massive action-oriented support to the graph. If 97% of close friends volunteered, but only 74% of survey-takers volunteered, the annotation draws attention to an opportunity that this fictitious nonprofit can build into it’s next strategic plan.

And that’s how you leverage the little bits of text in a graph to make it a powerful tool for decision-makers.

Ann and I are posting examples of charts that do and do not meet the checklist points. Check them out if you need an illustration.

Ann’s post today shows how to fully score a graph using the checklist, particularly focusing on text direction.

Did you remake a chart based on the checklist? If so, I’d LOVE to see it. Email me

10 thoughts on “How to Rock the Text in your Data Visualization
  1. Sorrel Brown says:

    Thanks, Stephanie. I just received your new book and am starting to go through it. So much to assimilate!

  2. Angie Ficek says:

    this is a MAJOR area for improvement for my reports. and i think oh so important. thanks for the great post!

  3. Sheila B. Robinson says:

    This is such an important aspect of presenting charts you are tackling here. I’ve been sharing this info at work where we regularly communicate with data! One question for you regarding the chart above: I often reduce the gap width in order to get wider bars. That way the reader sees more color and I think the bars pack a punch. On the other hand, narrower bars may give you more room for annotations. What’s your position on that?

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      Yeah to both! I think most commonly we don’t give enough room for our graphics in the first place. If we make them larger, there’s likely room to both widen the bars and add annotations.

  4. Robin says:

    Interesting concept. Question: would varying color help more to draw attention to what is important or would that be too distracting? For example, color in the subtitle and first bar?

    Best to you both!

  5. Jennifer Bisgard says:

    I love these tips, thank you so much!

  6. Nick Visscher says:

    Curious about how APA style guidelines impact (or don’t impact) the decision to go with descriptive title text?… Would this be something more appropriate for client-based evaluation reporting, and less for academic publication?

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      APA doesn’t specifically say not to do it, so I’d give it a try and see what happens or as the journal editor to clarify. It takes almost no extra time to make a good title, so easy to change it up when possible.

      • Nick visscher says:

        Excellent! All that I’ve been finding agrees with this… usually something in the guidelines like “title should be brief and descriptive of the chart”… but nowhere does it say charts should have titles that are the verbatim question asked to participants (something i’ve heard from people before). Thanks for the input.

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