Practice MattersProfessional Development

Minimize words, maximize impact with simple graphics


Browse the Internet, turn on the TV, or pick up a magazine: You’ll see eye-catching images carefully incorporated to describe concepts and explain relationships. Whether you’re preparing an in-service program, trying to emphasize an important patient-safety concern to your nursing director, or writing an article for a nursing journal, know that words alone may not suffice to capture your audience. Graphic images grab attention (especially for visual learners) and emphasize your take-home points with fewer words.

Using graphics lets you combine images with corresponding numbers that depict frequencies and relationships among variables—enabling your audience to grasp complex data at a glance. Graphics are easy to create with word-processing and spreadsheet software programs. They can be simple, or they may use design enhancements, such as 3-D graphics, rotation, and shading, to emphasize a particular point.

It’s important to select the right graphic to best explain the data to your audience. Let’s look at information presented graphically in two widely used formats: pie charts and bar graphs.

Pie charts

A pie chart is commonly used to show how different categories relate to the whole at a particular point
in time. This circular graphic is divided into "slices" that collectively represent 100% of the pie. Sizes of the slices vary with the numerical value of the data that each slice represents. Pie charts are the easiest graphic to read and are often used in print publications and presentations. For example, if you want
to show the percentage of nurses with specific educational preparedness at your facility, use a
pie chart. (See Sample pie chart by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Pie charts have some disadvantages that limit their use. Those with too many slices may be hard to understand, so it’s best to use a pie chart when comparing five or fewer variables. Also, pie charts may misrepresent information if their data are incomplete. Also, if a value is omitted, values of the remaining parts don’t give a true picture of the information being conveyed. The sample pie chart shown at right would inaccurately represent the data if four nurses in case management who work on the weekend and 22 nurses in the float pool weren’t reported.

Bar graphs

A bar graph shows different values of two or more variables using rectangular horizontal or vertical bars that differ in height or length according to the value or frequency of the data represented. Bar graphs are used to present and compare data at more than one point in time or from two or more sets of data. You might use a bar graph, for example, to compare current percentages of nurses with a specific educational preparation to the educational preparation of nurses at the same facility 10 years earlier. (See Sample bar graph by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Use caution when constructing bar graphs. Be aware that because the bars aren’t labeled, viewers may have trouble determining values. For example, in the above graph, for 2010 viewers can see that 10% of the nurses were MSN prepared—but for 2000 it’s hard to tell whether 5% or 6% had an MSN.

A great way to enhance your message

Keep these key points in mind when you want to use graphics:

  • Convey only one key message or point per pie chart or bar graph.
  • If your data represent a fixed point in time with five or fewer variables, use a pie chart.
  • If your data show a change over time or have more than five variables, use a bar graph.
  • Make your graphics easy to read by including descriptive labels.
  • Use graphic enhancements selectively and sparingly. Overuse or indiscriminate use can misrepresent data and confuse your audience.

Incorporating pie graphs or bar charts in your writing and presentations can enhance your message while giving your audience a break from excessive reading. Select the graphic that best depicts the information you want to convey. Then create, label, and describe it carefully to clearly emphasize your take-home message.

Susanne J. Pavlovich-Danis maintains a private practice specializing in diabetes management in Plantation, Florida, and is a nursing professor at the University of Phoenix, South Florida Campus, in Plantation. She also is a contributing author to the book Anatomy of Writing for Publication for Nurses.

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