Raise your hand if this scenario sounds familiar.

I can’t see you do it, but please indulge me.

You’re in the middle of a web analytics or marketing campaign readout, and you arrive at one of your most compelling insights. The chart slide you’ve painstakingly created will leave your audience changed forever. You click over to unveil it and then…

You notice something…disturbing.

Lea Pica - How to Format Charts in PowerPoint - Ermagerd So Blurry Chart

Your audience is squinting at your key findings like Grandpa Bob at a pesky no-see-um at your Memorial Day barbecue.

One of the trickiest presenting tasks I’ve encountered as an analyst is getting super-crisp charts and graphs into my PowerPoint.

Now, I’m slightly exaggerating here. Most charts I see in presentations are…legible. But the vast majority I see are just blurry enough to cause visual tension for the audience.

Banish Blurred Lines from Your #PowerPoint with these Razor-Sharp Chart Tips Click To Tweet

Why Does This Matter?

In my experience, visual tension in presentations causes your audience’s brain to do extra work to interpret your visuals. That can rob you of their attention and undermine the audience’s perception of your work.

Consider this:

Have you ever shopped an online store with blurry product photos? Are you more likely to purchase from a site that has ultra-crisp shots of their products?

I argue that the same way e-commerce merchants need sharp photography to sell their wares, the most successfuly digital analytics and marketers use sharp charts to “sell” their insights and achieve their presentation goals. And this is important to understand for anyone who often presents data in their profession.

But, I also understand that experimenting with every single formatting option to get this right can feel like a colossal waste of time.

Except for me.

Because I care so much, I’ve gone through every method in the book for you so that you can get your precious time back and still create razor-sharp charts.

In this post, you’ll find tutorials for several ways to get charts into PowerPoint, with tips to ensure they’ll look their very best come presentation day.

Like many other analytics processes, there’s more than one way to skin this, um…task. I’m not particularly fond of violent cat idioms. Below you’ll find detailed instructions on each method.

I based this blueprint upon getting a chart sized per the following slide screenshot:

Lea Pica - How to Format Charts in PowerPoint - Sample Slide Chart

Now, I’m a proponent in presenting one idea or fact at a time, based on audience psychology principles used by Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds. So, I like for my chart to take the majority of space on a slide, with room reserved at the time for the “Insight Headline” (also known as a “McKinsey title”).

Ready to learn how? Let’s get this party charted! (I went there)

BONUS: Don’t forget to sign up to access a free video tutorial and PowerPoint chart template of the #1 method I recommend at the end of this post.

METHOD #1: Paste as an image from Excel

PROS: Once the image is in, it’s in. You can rest assured to that short of a nuclear strike, nothing can change the chart’s formatting. But for me, that’s where the pros end.

CONS: Something sinister happens to 99% of the charts I see pasted as images into PowerPoint. It’s can be so telling, I almost immediately know that it’s an image and not an object or native chart.

Here’s the problem:

The second you paste the chart into PowerPoint, you almost inevitably need to resize it. And once you do…you lose image resolution, and if you’re not careful, proportion as well.

Your beautifully crafted insights now look the same way to your audience as they do to you after a festive Web Analytics Wednesday.

This is because your chart has become a raster image, which loses clarity upon any resizing. As opposed to a vector image, which maintains resolution at any size. Here’s a great layperson breakdown of the differences between the two by Jen Lombardi over at You The Designer.

And even if you haven’t resized, the type of image you paste as can drastically affect the chart’s resolution.

This is the biggest reason why I don’t paste from Excel.

The other reason is that you can’t update the chart without going back to your original Excel file. Update, copy, paste, rinse, repeat. This limitation has slowed me down before 11th hour before more than one executive meeting.

How to Paste Perfect PowerPoint Charts & Graphs, Every Time: Click To Tweet

But, I do recognize that this is likely the most common method. If that’s your case, here are the steps I recommend to maximize your chart’s clarity:

  • Open Excel with the data you’d like to plot.
  • Create a new worksheet where you’ll be constructing the chart.
  • Highlight the first 43 columns, right-click to select “Column” Width” and adjust it to be 1 unit wide or .2 inches. You can leave the row height alone.
  • Highlight the data and select Insert Chart (I’m using Clustered Bar as an example.)
  • Cut and paste the chart on the sizing worksheet.
  • Move the chart to the area with the resized grid-like area, and drag to resize it to fit the 43-column wide X 23-row high area.
  • To further complicate things, you have about a bajillion image formats to choose from. Take a look at this quick comparison:

Lea Pica - How to Format Charts in PowerPoint - Image Format Comparison

So if you’re going the image route, choose .PNG for the sharpest clarity, and .JPEG if large file size is an issue.

MAC USERS: Your choices are extremely limited, but you do have the additional option of pasting as a PDF (you lucky devils). This is good because the one image option available is ABYSMAL.

I find this to be sharper than the image options above; however, through heavy testing I still find that even the slightest resize gives me flashbacks to my Nintendo Contra days. Entertaining but sadly pixelated.

The benefit to this method is that once you’ve found a base size you prefer, you can adjust the Excel cell grid to accommodate it.

METHOD #2: Paste the Chart As an Object

PROS: Because the chart is now an actual chart, the resolution will remain intact. You can format it before or after pasting it in, giving you additional flexiblity.

CONS: I’ve seen very tricky things happen to charts as objects in PowerPoint because the worksheet is now embedded. And if you want to edit the data, it needs to open up the base file. And if you didn’t save the base file OR moved your PowerPoint to a different computer…

Lea Pica - How to Format Charts in PowerPoint - Chart Object Fail

Your connection to the based data has just been detached like the head of any well-liked Game of Thrones character (too graphic?). Big problem if you need a last-minute edit and you’re on another computer. Trust me on that.

So if you choose this method, be very, very sure that your data is bueno before pasting it in. Here’s the simple method:

  1. Creating your chart in Excel at any size. You can also follow the step in Method #1 to get the size right before pasting.
  2. When copying and pasting into PowerPoint, choose “Microsoft Excel Worksheet Object”.
  3. Format as needed, and save your base Excel file to the computer you’re using to present.

And the most reliable method I recommend is…

Method #3: Create a Built-In PowerPoint Chart

PROS: For me, this is the gold standard for beautifully rendered PowerPoint charts at any screen size and distance. Sharp type, vivid colors, and ultra-crisp lines. Like a House of Bespoke “Kennedy” suit.

CONS: More complicated charts are not as straightforward as in Excel. Tricks like conditional formatting are possible, but use a more involved process that I’ll be detailing in a future post.

Also, if you’re sourcing the chart from complex data that isn’t easily into a simple chart-able structure, you can opt for another method.

But I don’t recommend anything less for a larger executive or conference presentation.

I also find it so much more straightforward than creating the chart elsewhere and pasting it in.

What’s the Best Way to Get Crystal-Clear Charts in PowerPoint? Find Out Here: Click To Tweet

Here are the instructions:

  1. Prepare your base data in Excel.
  2. Open your PowerPoint and click “Insert Chart –> Clustered Bar Chart”. A new Excel worksheet will automagically open.
  3. Copy and paste your data into the chart area.
  4. Adjust the data range using the selection handles on the lower right corner. Your chart will adjust accordingly.
  5. Format your chart as you please (preferably using data visualization best practices.)
  6. You’re done. Seriously. That’s it.
  7. Enjoy much applauses and many cheer.

Now if this is “uncharted territory”, fear not: I’ve put together a quick free training video tutorial for you.

It also comes with a handy-dandy matching PowerPoint template with built-in bar and column chart! Click on the image below to snag it:

Lea Pica - How to Format Charts in PowerPoint - Click to access your free tutorial and template

And an added bonus, I’ve already formatted this bar chart using data visualization best practices. Try it out and let me know what you think!

For some perspective, below are screenshots of how each of these methods look, on both PC and Mac. My verdict is, built-in chart wins hands-down, especially on the Mac.

On a PC:

Lea Pica - How to Format Charts in PowerPoint - PC Comparison

On a MAC:

Lea Pica - How to Format Charts in PowerPoint - Mac Comparison

 

A few bonus tips:

  • A top priority in presentations is readability. Make sure your stakeholders won’t need opera glasses to eyeball your conversion rate.
  • My best trick for this is activating Slide Sorter view in PowerPoint with 6 slides. This gives you a bird’s eye view that ensures total readability at any reasonable distance.
  • Data labels and category/series labels must be readable, so aim for 20 pt font size or larger; I’m not as militant about axis labels.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Like many tasks involved with digital analytics, there are any number of ways of accomplishing this one.

The advantages to each method each have merit, but just make sure you’re making the most of the method you choose.

Because no one wants that kind of fuzzy math in their data presentation.

What’s your preferred method of working with charts in PowerPoint? Please share!

 

Lea is a digital analyst and marketer turned Data Storytelling Evangelist. She trains thousands of digital practitioners and consultants in the art and science of impactful data presentation through her blog and podcast, The Present Beyond Measure Show. Lea is also the creator of The PICA Protocol™, her practical prescription for healthy, actionable data stories that inform decisions, spark ideas, inspire action, and make YOU indispensable.