Tips for Using Excel to Communicate

MS Excel spreadsheet showing 3-Year Projections for Newco

Without a doubt, Microsoft Excel is a powerful tool for performing calculations. But it’s more than that. Once you share your work, it also becomes a tool for communicating. Unfortunately though, many people who are quite adept at calculating in Excel utterly fail to present their work clearly so others can understand it. This is a shame because when used well, there’s no better way to convey data, calculations, or business projections than with a powerfully-prepared spreadsheet.

Here are a few guidelines that will drastically improve how your work is received.

Every Spreadsheet Needs a Title

Nothing says “I’m a sloppy amateur” quite like passing out a spreadsheet with no title on it. Why? The title defines the context for the entire presentation. It tells the reader what they are looking at.

Without a title, rows and columns of data mean nothing. Is your chart a table of low and high tides? Train times? Girl scout cookie sales? Inmate counts in Folsom Prison? Who knows … it’s a mystery.

Use Descriptive Captions to Define Columns and Rows

Just like your document needs a title, so do your rows and columns. As obvious as this might sound, I see spreadsheets every day without these simple but important labels. Another frustrating variation that fails to communicate are labels that are abbreviated beyond all recognition.

It is easy to forget that the person reading your document, doesn’t know the content like you do. These headers and descriptions are the key to helping your readers understand what they are looking at. Don’t leave them out.

Keep Related Data in a Single Row

A key concept in spreadsheet design is to display data in batches, where a row represents a single group of related content. For example, if you are tracking variables about different NBA players, you’d list each player’s name on the far left, and then list each bit of data in a single cell moving across the right. You’d use your column headers to identify each bit of data. So for example, you might list the name, height, weight, position, games played, field goals, field goal percentage, etc.

You wouldn’t want to display data for a single player split onto two lines. There are some situations where you might have to do this for space considerations, but generally, it’s best to avoid this.

Tag Variations by Adding Columns, Rather than by Separating the Data Unnecessarily

Lets say you run two accounts receivable reports. One for accounts that have an ongoing relationship (i.e., “open” customers) and another for accounts no longer placing new orders (i.e., “closed” customers). Should you display this data in two reports or one? My vote it to combine all the data into a single report, but then add a column labeled, “Account Status.” You could then indicate either, “open” or “closed,” depending on which original report the specific account entry originated. The value is that the data can be displayed in one consolidated report, rather than in two.

Life is a Highway

When it comes to improving your communications skills, whether via Excel or in any other format, recognize that there is a process. You won’t get there overnight. But if you are attentive to the issue, if you strive to improve and importantly, observe how your presentations are received, you will get there.

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