Listen, no one cares about the order we listed the response options on the survey. But most graphs, especially those automatically generated from survey software, showcase the data in that order. And that isn’t useful for anyone trying to interpret the data.

Instead, place the bars in order from greatest to least. Greatest to least is the order that will answer your audience’s primary questions. At least, that’ll be the case when we are talking about categorical data, where there is no natural order to the response options themselves.

You can’t exactly move the bars around within the data display, but you can get them in the right order by sorting the data in the table. 

First, highlight the rows containing data, not including the headings. Click the arrow by the Sort and Filter button in the Editing group on the Home tab to see Custom Sort. Choose the column with your values in it and select Smallest to Largest (in Excel, order the table backward to have it show up the right way in the graph). The graph automatically updates to reflect your new categorical order. 

Years ago, I saw this graph and I wish I had done a better job of jotting down the source. I thought it was a perfect example of why we need to order data greatest to least on one of these variables.

It is harder than necessary to answer basic questions like, who are the top 3 energy users? because your eyeballs have to bounce all over the place. GREATEST TO LEAST!

Then I realized that there IS an order to this data. Can you see it?

It’s geographic. Like a Canadian-centric tour of the world.

So someone did put some thought into the order here but I would still argue that greatest to least would be more useful.

Sometimes there may be circumstances where you should defer to a different order. I was just in Canada discussing this matter with a room of 100 or so Canadians and they said convention there was so graph provinces from west to east. I had never heard of that before. Aren’t Canadians so delightful?

Ordinal data, such as income levels or age groups, might be best in their natural order. Or maybe not. You’ll know the right order for the data by putting yourself into the headspace of your *primary* audience.

Which way would they want to see it? If I was graphing Michigan county populations, I would like show it greatest to least if my *primary* audience was national. But if my primary audience was composed of people who live in Michigan counties, they are more likely to want to see the data sorted alphabetically, so they can easily find themselves, rather than hunt for their county name in a nonalphabetical list.

So using an intentional order means that you have thought carefully about the way the data can be sorted to make the most sense to your audience. And I promise you, it’ll never be the order of the questions on the survey.

Test your graph on its clarity using the Data Visualization Checklist.

I talked about this topic and a whole lot more in Chapter 5 of Presenting Data Effectively. Check it out.