How to make a simple positive “Waterfall chart”

If you ever need to produce “blue sky” ideas or have to explain causality then a waterfall chart can be a great way to show that graphically. Especially in the less slides in a deck is good world.

I had to do one of these the other day. I was given a cryptic old workbook from finance, which would take longer to cut & paste/decipher than to actually teach myself how to do it. Plus, it was too complicated for what I needed anyway.

I had to make a simple, “if I had to reach a target” visual representation. So, I searched around on the inter-web and came across some mathematician level answers for complicated graphs or utter rubbish. Based on this and the bits I could understand I found my own way.

I am sure there are other ways from people smarter than me. But, I thought I would share my simple waterfall how to guide.

Step by step to make your simple positive “Waterfall chart”

  • Have your starting point, e.g. current run-rate in row 2, column 3 (see figure 1)
  • List out all your activities you intend to do, to move towards the target with incremental value. So activities in column 1 and values e.g. incremental orders in column 3
  • Put your target Row 8, column 3
  • In row7, column 3 work out the difference/gap if applicable to your story
  • Column 2 is now for the “height buffer”, which will be formatted out later on. This should just be the cumulative total to effectively suspend your real data (column 3). Will make sense in a minute
  • Plot your stacked bar graph. (See figure 2)

Waterfall data sample data

Figure 1. Sample data

Waterfall chart - almost there

Figure 2. Half way there

Now you need to remove the column 2 buffer data from VIEW

  • Highlight and delete the legend
  • Right click and format the target column to make a different colour
  • Right click on the ‘buffer’ series and “format data series” to “No Fill” and “No line colour”
  • Optional extras may include the colour of any difference (if any), data labels or lines to aid digesting

Your graph should now look a bit like this. (See figure 3)

Sample waterfall chart

Figure 3. Ta-dah - Waterfall chart ready for your formatting

From now on you can customise it any way you want. Add any kind of title etc and generally put it into your house style.

But I think you will agree, it is a very simple way to represent data in a single chart. And it will make you look like a pro. That is how I make a simple, positive waterfall style graph. Hope it works for you too.

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