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Why Tables Are More Effective Than Graphs in Business Communication


A table is a systematic arrangement of data. Graphs are simply a concise method for depicting large amounts of data. The central issue in business communication is whether a graph is needed for business leaders to understand the data. A table will suffice in most cases because the data is not large or complex. Plus, using the wrong type of graph or a poorly constructed graph makes the data more difficult to understand than if the data were simply presented in a table. The rule is always to use a table and sometimes use a graph.


A Simple Story

Hurricane Idalia was about to make landfall in the Florida panhandle, cross the state, and then barrel up the South Carolina coast. My dad wanted to know the time of high tide in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Tables are used to develop every graph.  Decision makers like seeing the data when the decisions are big.
Tables are used to develop every graph. Decision makers like seeing the data when the decisions are big.

I went to my Tide app. I reported the high tide to be around 8 PM but added that the high tide would be around 7 AM.


My father quickly responded that I was wrong. The differential in morning and evening high tides was less than one hour.


Frustrated, I scrolled down and reported that he was right. The high tide in the morning was 7:06 AM and 7:40 PM. The difference was 34 minutes. He was satisfied. I and my data source had re-established credibility.

Tables summarize exact values and are sufficient for most data sets.
Tables summarize exact values and are sufficient for most data sets.

Definition of a Table

A table is a systematic arrangement of data, usually in rows and columns, for ready reference (Merriam-Webster). A table can also be a condensed enumeration or a list, such as a table of contents.


Uses of Tables in Business Communication

Tables are useful when you want to present a detailed breakdown of data, display exact values, and compare values. Tables are particularly effective because they add credibility (exact values), show detailed comparisons, and are used daily in business.


Definition of a Graph

A graph is a diagram (such as a series of one or more points, lines, line segments, curves, or areas) that represents the variation of a variable in comparison with that of one or more other variables (Merriam-Webster). Other words with similar meanings are chart, plot, diagram, map, and sketch.


Uses of Graphs in Business Communication

Graphs illustrate changes over time and convey the overall story behind the data. Graphs are particularly effective when data sets are large and you want to convey the big picture quickly.


Data Logs Are Troublesome Tables

Data logs can be problematic forms of tables.
Data logs can be problematic forms of tables.

Like every table, a data log presents exact values, and most business leaders are comfortable with reading tables. The disadvantage is that the timestamps are not always the same, making it difficult to see a pattern quickly.


Another Simple Story

My dog Beau was diagnosed with diabetes approximately six months ago. I regularly use a Libre continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system that doesn’t require a blood sample. One daily result is provided.


The graph is more helpful to me because it shows the trend quickly. The data is collected by me (via my mobile phone) at irregular time periods, which makes it difficult to see the big picture. However, when something unusual happens, I fall back on the actual data that is in the table.


Graphs quickly depict trends.
Graphs quickly depict trends.

Communicating with FINESSE

The rule for effective business communication is always to use a table and sometimes use a graph. The always aspect puts the table as high on the list of essential visuals. However, graph fans should not be distraught. The cone diagram (used for forecasting) and the causal factor timeline (used in root cause analysis) are essential visuals, too. Just remember that in most cases, a table is sufficient for understanding by business leaders.


The I in FINESSE stands for Illustrate. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?


 

Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. The community’s 750 Club shares special tips and pointers associated with each bone in the FINESSE fishbone (cause and effect) diagram. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.

 

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