Bar charts are one of the most common ways to display information in a visual format, so it’s a popular choice in all kinds of media. Most business presentations have at least one of them in the mix and they are scattered throughout most high school textbooks. That’s why the ability to comprehend and use charts is a basic skill for modern business leaders.

Overview: What is a bar chart?

A technical definition of a bar chart is a graph that represents quantified data in the form of discrete rectangular shapes. There is a lot of potential variability in the type, complexity and scope of these graphs. A bar chart can be as simple as three red blocks of different sizes along two axes or it could involve hundreds of shapes that are broken down further into color-coded segments.

3 benefits of bar charts

The power of bar charts is in their simplicity and flexibility. They are appropriate for almost any kind of data and are easy to understand.

1. More impactful presentation

Like any other kind of chart or graph, this tool is powerful because it allows data to make a stronger and more immediate impact on the viewer. It helps listeners appreciate the implications of the information without getting distracted by other details.

2. Screen-friendly format

Bar charts are easy to adapt to different sizes and styles of presentation, which makes them perfect for digital content. They also require minimal labeling or legend information compared to other types of tables.

3. Flexible structure

The adaptive nature of bar graphs makes them a useful resource in almost any situation where comparison of hard data is concerned. There are many ways to organize and layer data to include various types of comparisons within a single chart.

Why are bar charts important to understand?

The simplicity of the bar chart can also be a drawback if you don’t understand how to use them properly.

Meaningful graphics

Any presentation can be filled with a number of colorful charts and graphics, but that doesn’t mean they should be. It’s a good idea to save your bar charts for the one or two key data points that need to make a big impression to communicate essential information.

Measure and control

Charting is all about measurement and control, which are both fundamental parts of the Six Sigma DMAIC cycle. Business leaders need to understand and appreciate the genuine value of honest and accurate data if they want to truly improve their company.

Recognizing error

Business leaders not only need to know how to use bar charts, they also need to know when other people are using them improperly. For example, the actual size of the rectangles should be consistently correlated to quantified data rather than arbitrarily sized.

An industry example of a bar chart

Owners of a fast food company are concerned about sporadic reports about bad customer service at their location. Since they aren’t sure what people or work shifts are related to these complaints, they decide to create a chart to indicate problem areas. Analysts begin by looking at each complaint lodged with the corporate office, then compare them to the day of the week as well as whether it was during the morning or evening shift. They then create a bar chart with vertical rectangles, one for each day of the week. Each bar is broken up into green and white to indicate the relative portion of complaints for each of the two shifts.

3 best practices when thinking about bar charts

The key to getting the most out of charts is to think before you graph, use good data and double-check everything.

1. Provide context

Bar charts don’t usually stand alone. A rogue bar chart can be misinterpreted and misunderstood without sufficient context alongside. Anything else can be construed as deceptive or inaccurate.

2. Keep it in focus

Charts and graphs should be used to support the ultimate point or purpose of the presentation or conversation. If the data illustrated doesn’t provide any tangible or meaningful addition to the spoken word, then it will likely just be a distraction for the listeners.

3. Be honest

No viewer will appreciate being deceived by a dishonest chart. Bar charts should be consistent and typically based on a zero standard so that the visual comparison is accurately correlated to quantitative difference.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about bar charts

What are the types of bar charts?

Bar charts can be oriented on either the vertical or horizontal axis depending on how you want to display the information. Information can also be categorized discretely or in a stacked format to allow for more data in a small space.

What are bar charts used for?

The primary purpose of the bar chart is to show viewers a visual representation of the comparison of related data points.

What is a histogram?

Histograms are a similar graphical format, but are technically not the same as bar charts. These charts are defined by interval rather than category.

Chart your way to success

Even if bar charts can’t actually make you succeed, they will almost certainly be a part of the story. These graphs are a basic building block of most slide-show presentations these days, so it’s a good idea to know them inside and out.

About the Author