Graphs: The “Cartoons” of Numbers

Never give a gun to a duck.

—An old hunters' saying

Graphs are a popular quantation tool with both presenters and audiences. They are easy to create, they “look professional,” and they appeal to the visual side of our brains. But don't get swept off your feet. Graphs are like cartoons: at their best, cartoons can capture the essence of a complex issue in a concise, eloquent, memorable way. At their worst, they simply represent an entertaining look at a subject without communicating anything substantial.

Using graphs to present your quantation has a similarly bipolar potential. At their best, graphs are a succinct, effective way of getting key ideas across to your audience. At their worst, graphs don't say much and end up taking up a lot of space. Furthermore, they may put you in a bad light, as your audience comes to realize that your polished-looking presentation didn't educate them. Worse still, poorly executed graphs can cause your audience to question your professionalism and even your ethics, especially when they are part of graph-heavy presentations (that can themselves suggest to an audience that the presenter may be trying to snow them). This chapter will help you avoid these pitfalls by giving you practical tips for making your graphs clear and meaningful to your audience. It will also suggest approaches and behaviors to follow (and those to avoid) when using graphs in your quantation.

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