CHARTS & Visuals

“The secret of achievement is to hold a picture of a successful outcome in mind.”

– Henry David Thoreau, 19th Century American Author


I’ve created thousands of charts, some with enough insight to change the strategic direction of large organizations. Charts seem so mundane and boring, but framing analysis in just the right way can be the difference between a yawner chart versus one that shouts insight. As a strategic leader, you’ll often have to take that insightful analysis of the last few steps by putting it into a chart that visually tells the story.

It’s hard to communicate insight by showing somebody some data in an Excel spreadsheet, but you show them the same data in a chart, and you can make a strong impact on them.

Beyond the traditional line, bar, and pie charts, there are a lot of other very useful charts that should be used for the right situation. Here are some of the most used from my McKinsey days and beyond.


Stacked column chart

Best used to show overall and sub-segment trends. Make sure you have large enough segments, so it doesn’t get too messy, and always place the largest values on the bottom.

stacked column chart example

100% stacked column chart

Focuses on the normalized relative trends of different segments, but can also represent absolute values. Below is the same data from the preceding Stacked column chart to make a 100% stacked column chart.


100% stacked column chart example

Waterfall chart

One of the go-to charts of most top strategy consulting firms. The waterfall chart disaggregates elements and totals them as steps to create the whole. Often used to show the magnitude of the different elements that make up something. Typically start with the largest values on the bottom, unless some other dimension such as process flow or time better organizes the elements.


waterfall chart example


2×2 scatter plot chart

Allows raw data to visually show patterns or the absence of patterns. It is great to visually show correlations within a lot of data. In some instances, it may be better to remove outliers and focus on the majority of data points.


scatter plot example


Radar Chart

A fancy way to compare two or more things across multiple dimensions.


radar chart example

Mekko Chart

Nice way to visualize the size of elements in two levels within a segmentation.

mekko chart example

Bubble chart

Bubble charts are a great way to visualize three or four dimensions. You can use the vertical and horizontal axes, the size, color, and pattern within the bubbles.


bubble chart example

Why are charts important?

Charts let you visualize data in ways where insights often pop off the page. Use a chart to get the point across and highlight insights. Looking at a bunch of numbers is extremely difficult to process, especially for those of us that are more visual. Furthermore, if you want to understand a dataset or analysis, merely chart the data, and you’ll often speed up your interpretation of the data.


How do you create great charts?

Charts are like different frames for a picture. Some frames go with some pictures, while other frames clash. Similarly, you have to figure out what the right chart is to showcase your data and make the insights pop. Often times a bar or pie chart does the trick, but other times, you’ll need to find another chart to frame the data. Here are some best practices when it comes to charts:

Keep it Simple

The whole idea of charts is to visually represent data. And, to get your point across, it is best to keep your charts simple so people can easily digest the data and come to their own conclusion.

Prioritize the Data

Always order the values of a chart using meaningful criteria, which could be size, date, process flow, importance, or smallest to largest.

Make Sure you are Comparing Apples to Apples

Don’t put things on the same chart that aren’t in the same category or level. In the mekko chart, you wouldn’t put an item like “the COO’s salary”, since it isn’t at the same level as the other items.

Clean up the Chart for Good Hygiene

At top strategy firms, all the slides from different projects have similar standards when it came to fonts, colors, headers, sourcing, and spacing. The slide below serves as a good example.


mckinsey slide chart format example


Refer to the slide above for the following best practices:

Call out the Insight

In the header or top of the page write out the insight you want people to take away from the chart. Don’t hesitate to state the obvious.

Use the Same Font Style and Size

Throughout the slide, except for the header and source, use the same size and style of font. It allows the insights to pop and doesn’t inadvertently focus the eye on larger or different fonts.

Use Simple Color Schemes

Once again, you want insights to pop, and using different colors can distract a reader. If you do go with color, similar to picking the color schemes for your house, make sure the colors don’t clash.

Source the Data

Somewhere on the bottom, make sure you call out where the data came from and other important descriptors.



To get you going on your charting needs, download the free and editable PowerPoint Chart templates.








 Learn more about Joe Newsum, the author of all this free content and a McKinsey Alum. I provide a suite of coaching and training services to realize the potential in you, your team, and your business. Learn more about me and my coaching philosophy.
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