Sticky Presentations bite size article: Five mistakes to avoid when creating column charts for your presentation slides

Five mistakes to avoid when creating column charts for your presentation slides

May 10, 2019

Column charts are quite a common sight on presentation slides. They are easy to create and are usually created automatically with a function available in your presentation software—PowerPoint, Keynote, or similar. The problem with most column charts that we see is that they are difficult to understand at the first glance. Likely busy overcrowded with data and labels. Above that, there are also other visual information such as colours, lines, shadows, add on graphics and effects that add to the confusion.

When we let the software decide on how to show the chart, we might end up having information or effects that are not necessarily needed. So, there are lots of clutter as I would usually call it.

Reducing the unnecessary visual information will bring clarity to the column chart and thus making it easier to see the required key information. There are 5 mistakes that we all make when creating a column chart. And we should make every effort to avoid them when possible.

The 5 mistakes to avoid

Here are the 5 mistakes that we should avoid the next time we create our column chart for a presentation slide. The slide example below includes all the 5 mistakes described in this story and should be avoided at all times when possible.

#1 Too many visible numbers

Having too many numbers visible on the chart is the first mistake that many make. If we let PowerPoint decide by default how to display the data that was used to create the chart, we will always end up with charts that are full of numbers. Numbers are good, but too many of them makes it difficult for your audience to see the key numbers that makes the chart meaningful.

We can manually turn off the "show values" function in PowerPoint or Keynote softwares. This will give us a clean chart without numbers clutter. And yes, it might turn off all values, including the key numbers. We can then manually put back the key numbers to the chart by retyping them as a text object.

#2 Too many coloured columns

Having too many colours filling up columns of the chart is the second mistake that many of us make. Again, this might be the default setting in PowerPoint charting function and so I would blame it on PowerPoint. We don’t need all the colours to paint the column of the chart.

All we need are 2 colours—one (a bold colour) to highlight the key column, and the other (a light or medium grey colour) for the rest of the data columns. Removing all unnecessary colours and only using colours to highlight key column(s) gives better focus to the chart and will make the key information stand out.

If more colours are required, use complementary colours from a harmonised colour palette. Using harmonious colours ensures that the secondary colours used blends with the primary colour selected for the key data column.

#3 Extra lines and shadows

Having extra lines and shadows on the chart is another mistake that we often make. Thick visible grid lines, chart outlines, and shadow effects make the overall slide looks cluttered. These unnecessary extras are distractions to the audience and we should avoid them when possible. You will realise how much cleaner your overall slide will look if these extras were removed.

#4 Legend turned on

Having legend turned on for the chart is the fourth mistake we make. Legend is good as a tool to visually show the meaning of colours used for the columns. It is effective when the chart is used for a report or document. When used for presentation slides it adds clutter to the overall slide. In place of using a legend, use direct labelling instead. Direct labelling is straight forward and easier on the eyes. Use a label box with arrows pointing to related columns makes a better visual to the overall chart.

#5 Adding a spreadsheet-like table

The final mistake is adding a corresponding spreadsheet-like table of numbers below the chart. This will be the ultimate clutter and confusion that anyone can add to a chart slide. Definitely not a good idea for presentation slides. Getting straight to the point to display specific relevant number (or numbers) is better than trying to show too much detail along with the column chart.

A better column chart

The slide example below avoided all the 5 mistakes mentioned above and is one slide that is effective for use in a presentation. If you compare the chart below with the one earlier, you will realised that the one below is easier to look at and contain just enough information relevant for its purpose.

This slide example below shows the same column chart as above, but with secondary colours selected from a harmonised colour palette added on to the secondary data column. To make the chart more exciting, Infographic elements representing the data type were then added to the based column chart.

The goal is always to make things easy for the audience. Try avoiding the above 5 mistakes when you create column chart for your next presentation slide. Keep column charts on your slides as simple as possible, showing only the required information. Your audience will love it.


The author, ANG Tian Teck is a coach, trainer, and speaker, specialising in inspiring organisations and business leaders to deliver high impact presentations. He has coached, trained, and infected over 10,000 individuals across the region with his Amazing Sticky Presentations® approach. Tian Teck is also the author of two books, Sticky Presentations®, and Spinning I.D.E.A.S.

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