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Create Great Business Graphics Without Excel

These free visualization tools will spice up your presentations. Learn where to find them and how to use them.
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Numbers may be the way that businesses keep score, but present a report laden with columns and rows of raw data, and your colleagues will soon exhibit what I call MEGO syndrome, as in "My Eyes Glaze Over." I've seen that telltale MEGO look around many a boardroom table, and it ain't pretty. So when I have the misfortune of presenting to a group, I do my best to make my information understandable with clear, simple graphics.

Of course, we're not all Excel experts, and sometimes the number-crunching features of a full-blown spreadsheet app just get in the way when you're trying to create a smart, snappy visual aid for your complex data. With a single-purpose data-visualization tool such as LogiXML VizLytics, you can skip all of the math and get right down to making pretty pictures.

(For more great presentation helpers, check out PC World's "Top 5 Business Presentation Files.")

A Free Visualization Tool
VizLytics is a free service, currently in beta, that lets you create graphs and share them with others. You can slice and dice data in different ways and then visualize the results to help everyone make better business decisions.

Signing up for a free VizLytics account is quick and easy. Sample data sets let you put VizLytics through its paces to see what it has to offer. You can display bar and pie charts or a numerical table, and you also get options to customize the layout and to hide or display columns.

Unlike Microsoft Excel, VizLytics doesn't help you create or even organize your raw data. Instead, you import your data into VizLytics from an Excel workbook, a Google worksheet, a CSV file, or the customer relationship management service.

After importing your data, you can create the style of graph you wish. I like the way VizLytics lets you drag and drop different visual styles, such as line and bar charts, to see how they look. If you don't want to display all the data in one view, you can select just the columns you require.

After you're satisfied with the results, you can invite others by e-mail to view your chart and add comments, if they choose.

In the future VizLytics will allow data import from other sources, such as QuickBooks, Intuit's small-business accounting software. A paid version of the service, planned for launch this year, will add support for workgroups.

The graphics options that VizLytics offers may be too simplistic for some users. If a chart isn't working out for your needs, you may be best off abandoning it and starting again with a different format. For instance, you might try a line chart rather than a bar chart.

Another online service I looked at last April, EditGrid, offers more spreadsheet-graphics options. EditGrid is particularly strong if you want to display financial data originating from other online services, such as stock-price charts and foreign exchange rates. It supports mashups from Google Charts, Reuters, Yahoo Finance, and other online sources.

Making Charts: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Charts aren't always the best tool to help colleagues better understand data tables. Sometimes a simple written analysis to explain a key point revealed in the numbers is all you need, and other times your audience just wants to see some raw numbers.

Bad charts can mislead or make it more difficult for your audience to understand the data. I find that pie charts are particularly susceptible to misuse, particularly when they display unrelated data that adds up to a meaningless total.

One of the best ways to prepare better graphics is to understand what works and what doesn't. Here are some tips to get you started.

Bad Charts, a companion Web site to the book Just Plain Data Analysis by Gary Klass, provides a number of examples of poor chart design. A pie chart that doesn't add up to 100 percent, distortions created by unnecessary 3D effects, and cluttered charts that obscure the results are just some of the visual effects Klass highlights that you should avoid in your charts.

If you'd like more tips on creating better and more understandable charts, Jorge Camoes's Charts blog offers his insights on data visualization.

The best graphics offer a better understanding of results than you can get from a textual description--something that isn't easy to produce in a standard spreadsheet graphics template. One classic is the flow map created by Charles Minard in 1869 that displays the losses Napoleon's army suffered during its ill-fated march to Moscow in 1812. Arguably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, it depicts the diminishing size of the French army during its advance and retreat, plotted against the temperature of selected days.

You might not approach the standards of a Minard, but you can make good graphs that help people understand numerical results. And in times like these, when the bottom line comes under greater scrutiny, better data visualization can help lead to better business decisions.

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