Presenting and Arranging Data: How To Explain a Graph

Updated February 3, 2023

A person seated at a table studies printed graphs and tablet information.

Human brains process visual data differently than textual data. When presenting data to an audience, including visual information engages the visual center of one's brain and can help garner attention to your topic. By understanding how graphs work, you can better determine how and when to use them.

In this article, we discuss what a graph is, how to explain a graph, uses for graphs and types of graphs like bar graphs, line graphs and pie graphs.

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What is a graph?

A graph is a visual representation of numerical data. Graphs provide a visual way to summarize complex data and to show the relationship between different variables or sets of data. Graphs are also an excellent way to demonstrate trends and relationships within the data. Often, it's easier for people to understand numerical data or complex data when you present it visually as a picture or graph, so graphs can help your audience process information more quickly.

Related: How To Make a Graph in Google Sheets

How to explain a graph

Here are steps you can use to explain a graph effectively:

1. Introduce the graph

Introduce the graph to your audience by presenting the title and explaining the topic of the graph. Share what the data highlights, including the topic, values and subjects of the research. It's important to introduce this information to the audience so that they understand the rest of the data you share. It's also helpful to make the data relevant to the audience so they may have more interest in your presentation.

Related: 10 Tips for Giving a Great Presentation to an Audience

2. Identify variables

Graphs such as bar and line graphs have a y- and x-axis. Both axles represent values or variables. Identifying the variables the graph displays is a way of explaining the data it represents and it's useful to highlight these characteristics of the graph so the audience may understand the data.

Related: Exogenous Variable vs. Endogenous Variable (With Tips for Classifying Variables)

3. Highlight key information

Highlight the key information in your graph so that the audience takes notice of your important findings. This may include recognizing patterns, identifying outliers or comparing the data. Consider the conclusions you collect from your data, and ensure you share relevant information from the graph with your audience.

4. Share conclusions

Share the conclusions you can make from the data the graph displays. Your conclusions help explain the purpose of the graph and let the audience know how they can use the data. Graphing data can help make decisions, which may be the type of conclusions you make.

Related: How To Make Data-Driven Decisions: Definitive Guide and Reasons

Uses for graphs

In the business world, professionals frequently use graphs during presentations or in formal reports. Because graphs demonstrate numerical data, professionals may utilize them when analyzing key performance indicators or financial information. As such, graphs may help communicate information that can help an organization identify performance gaps, areas for improvement, financial successes and other quantifiable items that may need attention.

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Types of graphs

Because different types of graphs have different features, the graph you choose depends on your audience and the type of numerical data you want to represent. When choosing which type of graph to use, consider the type of data you have and which type of graph both correctly presents the information and is most visually appealing. It's best to keep the graphs as simple as possible so that they're easy to understand. When possible, explain the graphs to your audience using appropriate vocabulary.

Here are the main types of graphs and when best to use them:

Image of sample bar graph

Bar graphs

Here are some common questions and answers about bar graphs to help you decide if it's the right graph for you to use:

What is a bar graph?

Bar graphs divide information into individual bars that let you track the data over time or show the relationship between different independent sets of data or a series of independent data. Bar graphs can be vertical or horizontal, so the length or height of each bar represents the measured frequency or value of the data set. Bar graphs are the most common visual aid for presenting statistical data.

What does a bar graph look like?

Bar graphs have an x-axis and a y-axis, typically with categories listed on the x-axis and numbers listed on the y-axis. The data on the bar graph appears as columns or bars, which makes it visually easy to compare the data in the different categories. You can see which categories are smallest and largest, and the categories are independent, so they don't influence each other. When describing a bar graph, it's standard to start on the left and describe the trend moving towards the right, like whether the data is going up, down or staying the same.

What is some common vocabulary associated with bar graphs?

When using bar graphs in a presentation or describing them in a written report, the following phrases are useful:

  • "The horizontal axis represents..."

  • "The vertical axis shows..."

  • "This shaded area describes..."

  • "This bar illustrates..."

  • "This colored segment is for..."

Image of sample line graph

Line graphs

When considering line graphs, here are some important questions and answers to consider:

What is a line graph?

Line graphs plot data across a single connected line that represents a period of time. They show the relationship between the data and the amount of time that has passed. Line graphs can demonstrate how data changes over time, which is particularly useful for presenting numbers that are connected, like trends. They can also show how two items during a specific period of time have dependencies.

What does a line graph look like?

A line graph takes informational points on a graph and connects them with a line to represent relationships, trends or changes between objects, dates or other data. The line shows the movement of the data over time and how the key factors increase or decrease the data. This type of graph works well for demonstrating movement or action within the data set. When organizing a line graph, it's typical to follow the line's progression from left to right across the horizontal axis, describing the trend as going up, down or staying the same.

What is some common vocabulary associated with line graphs?

When writing or speaking about line graphs, the following action words are useful:

  • Verbs: Rise, grow, climb, peak, decline, drop, reduce, remain stable, stay constant, crash, plummet

  • Adjectives: Sharp, substantial, huge, considerable, slight, minimal, significant, massive, dramatic

  • Adverbs: Rapidly, steeply, markedly, sharply, slightly, minimally, substantially, considerably

Related: A Guide to Line Graphs in the Workplace

Pie graph

The third type of graph, pie graphs, may be applicable in certain situations. Here are some common questions and answers about pie graphs:

What is a pie graph?

Pie graphs divide information into categories to show the relationship between a whole and its parts. They're helpful in visualizing smaller percentages that add up to 100%, creating a whole. Each segment or slice of the pie has a specific title or category within the whole, representing a percentage distribution.

What does a pie graph look like?

Pie graphs are typically in the shape of a circle, with the different categories splitting the circular "pie" into slices. Pie graphs work well for comparing different categories of data with each other. These graphs allow readers to compare each category or slice of the pie to the others and discuss how the percentage of each category contributes to the whole.

What is some common vocabulary associated with pie graphs?

The following comparison phrases are helpful when speaking or writing about any pie graphs you create:

  • To compare

  • Compared to

  • Greater than

  • Less than

  • The majority of

  • As opposed to

  • Versus

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