Timelines, 4 Ways

The least helpful timelines I’ve ever seen are these:

TimelineExamples3

where time is basically bulleted, as if each of these intervals is equidistant and as if a bunch of text is the best way to communicate something inherently not based in narrative. You are basically saying, this journey is going to be really confusing because I’m not willing to help you see what’s really going to happen when. Buckle up! And that’s probably not the vibe you’re trying to give off.

One alternative is to just draw that baby out, in PowerPoint, by inserting lines and brackets and textboxes. You’ll do your level best to place the markers along the line with spacing that represents your actual timeline. This way people can get a better sense of how much is going to be crammed into a short span or how much breathing room there will be between events.

TimelineExamples

Better yet, replace the text with a picture. In our Presenting Data workshop agenda slides (cohosted by my friends at fassforward consulting), for example, we include a little thumbnail of a slide we’ll speak to in that section. While you can’t exactly lift this idea in whole, you can be inspired to apply the same visual thinking to your own timelines.

TimelineFassForward

Another alternative is to steal from a gantt chart model. Use colored bars to show the span of time you’ll spend on each activity. Great for multiple activities overlapping each other. And of course you can make the visual mathematically proportionate by creating the whole thing inside Excel or using the free Office Timeline plug-in.

TimelineGantt

And the fourth way, plot that on a calendar. People think in calendars. People’s lives are run by calendars. So give them what they need in a calendar.

TimelineExamples4

And I’m sure you know of other ways to show timelines (link to your examples in the comments!) but please let’s represent the project timeline in a way that matches its importance and becomes a useful tool for the team.

16 Comments

  1. I’ve been leaning hard on the third option using Excel, but I always feel like there must be a better way. I’ve never seen or heard of the fourth option with the calendar. I love the idea. Seems like it might take up a bit of space for longer timelines, but I’m definitely going to try it out. Thanks for more great ideas…keep ’em coming.

  2. itHi Stephanie – always love getting your blog updates – thanks. Have you used Office Timeline – also in PPT? I have played with it a bit but not yet wrestled it into full submission – I think it has potential.

    1. Stephanie Evergreen

      I have! I used it for the one that looks like a Gantt chart. I found I had to do a lot of work to change up the defaults so it looked simple and clear – a typical process, just something to be aware of.

  3. I don’t have it here, but I came into a really long term project (8 years and counting at the moment) and used the gantt/excel approach to map out a visual approach for the project, 4 major work teams, and a couple of very simple presentation visuals. It’s easy to follow, consistently colour coded, there’s a workbook page for each team and can be detailed as they prefer, covers 2 years, and we check off (not delete) major items completed. Took some convincing, but after a few months of working with it everyone got the idea and it’s been well received over the last year.

  4. Hello Stephanie! I really like your idea of using a calendar as a visual representation of project phases. The Gantt chart created using Office Timeline looks great and it’s very easy to follow. The Plus edition also allows import and synch from Excel and Ms Project which is bound to speed up the process of creating a timeline or Gantt chart. If you or your users want to give it a try, you can signup for a free 14 days trial of the Office Timeline Plus edition, only an email address is required: https://www.officetimeline.com/14-days-trial .
    Best wishes,
    Sebastian Stingu

  5. Oooh, today’s post is so colorful! 🙂
    I personally dig the agenda a la image. Very creative. I wonder if I can talk my team into it… Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Hi Stephanie,
    Fantastic post! I have found my clients go crazy for timelines. Can you recommend your top software for making a high quality timeline (beyond PPT)? Something that can tie in more graphic design aesthetics without needing to be a graphic designer?

    Regards,

    Jenny

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Microsoft Visio is great for timelines and allows for pulling in images/graphics. Stephanie is absolutely right, though, the design is more important than the software tool.
      Thanks, Stephanie, for creating so much inspiration and for the easy to follow how-to in may of your blogs!
      Clair

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