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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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JD Solomon is the author of Communicating Reliability, Risk & Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss’s Boss to Understand and Facilitating with FINESSE: A Guide to Successful Business Solutions.