Wanna know how to tell a story with data? Use your chart title to communicate a takeaway idea. It’s the simplest step you can take to massively improve the quality of your data visualizations.

But what if your key takeaway idea takes more than one dataset to communicate? What if your takeaway idea is complex or multi-part?

Employ three dots.

You know… an ellipsis.

That’s the same tool you’d use to string together a multi-part sentence in your regular writing. And regular writing is what we’re going for with our chart title. We’re aiming for full sentences that flow naturally.

They’ll likely be lengthy.

Complex conclusions may rely on multiple sources of data.

You just need that sweet little ellipsis to connect it all together.

Let me show you what this looks like in practice, with a few examples I’ve snapped over the years, from Mother Jones.

(And pardon the blurriness or angle in each of these images – I took the photos myself, using my phone, while reading the actual print articles because I’m an elder millennial who still subscribes to magazines and enjoys reading paper.)

Being Kicked Off SSI at 18…

Cute dumbbell dots here, yeah?

It just took two sets of those dots to tell the whole story. The top graph is about getting charged with a crime… while the bottom graph is about actually getting incarcerated.

The two datasets can’t be, won’t be, on the same scale. So two separate charts will be required here. Even though all the data is necessary to make the point. No prob, just use the ellipsis.

How Retirement Policy has Enriched the Richest

Ok, similar situation here, where we have two datasets on totally different scales. They share the same x-axis though – 1989 to 2019. This is when many data people would make the grave mistake of using a dual axis chart. Please don’t do that. You only make a hot mess.

A better idea: Stick the charts one above the other, so the points in time align. And use a multi-part sentence with an ellipsis to connect the ideas together.

One more interesting design feature here: Notice how they combined three lines into one in the bottom chart. Smart way to aggregate the three distinct lines in the top graph.

The government claims it is exceeding its clean power target.

I know some of my less adventurous readers will protest the ellipsis. “I’m not some iNflUeNcEr!” Yeah, yeah, I can hear you.

Try this idea. Just put your charts side by side. Their proximity will make them appear to your audience as connected. Starting the second graph’s title with a conjunction also communicates the interrelationship here.

(Bonus points for Mother Jones for making these chart titles sentence case, too. As they should be… they’re full sentences!)

Those tiny but powerful three dots lead your audience down your storytelling path, like breadcrumbs through your forest. And they give you the means to create chart titles that communicate your complex points.

Learn something new?

Share this helpful info with a friend who needs an extra perk today or post it to your social where your third cousin can benefit, too.