Matthew W Ford
Northern Kentucky University College of Business

 

 

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Making Effective Tables (Updated 09/05/2012 01:35 PM)

I wanna know

What you're thinking.

There are some things you can't hide.

I wanna know

What you're feeling.

Tell me what's on your mind.

--Information Society

Tables: A Comparison’s Best Friend

In most analytical memos (like the ones you’re writing in this class), you’re usually making comparisons.  Productivity this year versus last year.  One company’s production process versus another.  One versus two carwash lines.  Different layout alternatives.  Two quality improvement processes.  Various supply chain management practices.

Hopefully you get the picture...

Whenever you’re making analytical comparisons, you should be thinking: TABLE.

A table is your best friend when comparing two or more items.  Why?  It consolidates lots of information into a small package and permits your reader to ‘get it’ in a hurry.

Organizing Tables

A table is merely information arranged in rows and columns.  Table 1 below shows the proper way to organize most tables.  The items that you’re comparing (this year vs. last year, two investment alternatives, etc) go in the columns.  The reason for this is that research suggests that people are best able to cognitively compare items when they are placed side by side.

Table 1: Proper Table Organization 

 

Item 1

Item 2

Factor 1

 

 

Factor 2

 

 

Factor 3

 

 

In the rows go the factors that you will be using to compare the items against.  For example, if you were comparing financial performance of two companies, then the factors might be revenues, expenses, profits, etc.

One of the rare occasions where it might make sense to reverse the order is when you are comparing many items.  For example, if you where comparing 10 different organizations or looking at change in performance of a few factors over many years, then you might want to put the factors in the columns and the items in the rows. 

In most cases, however, organizing your table similar to Table 1 is your best bet.

Formatting Tables 

Once you’ve organized your table, the rest is really about formatting—i.e., how can I present the information in my table for maximum impact with my reader? 

That’s a worthy question, mon frere, since there are a few tricks-of-the-trade that can help you transform a messy, cluttered table into a clean, streamlined table capable of delivering the impact that you’re seeking. 

First, let’s take a look at how not to do it.  Table 2 compares some operating factors of two companies.  What you see is what you get by default by using the ‘Insert Table’ wizard in word, selecting a seven row by three column table, and then filling in the cells with your information.  Yes, you’ve put the companies in the columns and the factors in the rows like you should, but note how long it takes to determine just what you’re looking at.

You can do better… 

Table 2:  A Messy, Cluttered Comparison 

 

Company A

Company B

Output

20000

10000

Labor

350

600

Productivity

57.12486

16.66666666666667

Process

Flow

Job

Equipment

Specialized

General Purpose

Variety

2 Models

14 Models

Table 3 shows a more effective version.  Take a minute to compare Tables 2 and 3.  What key formatting differences do you see?

Table 3:  A More Desirable Format

 

Company A

Company B

 

 

 

Output (units)

20,000

10,000

Labor (hrs)

350

600

Productivity (units/hr)*

57.1

16.7

 

 

 

Process

Flow

Job

Equipment

Specialized

General Purpose

Variety

2 Models

14 Models

 

 

 

* productivity = output/labor

Minimize cell borders.  One thing you should notice about Table 3 is that most of the cell borders are gone.  Only a single horizontal line that separates the column headings remains.  By default, Microsoft Word keeps those cell borders.  Get rid of most of them.  Research suggests that all those borders impede a reader’s ability to process your comparison.  You can manipulate cell borders by using the Borders wizard on the Formatting toolbar (View>Toolbars>Formatting).  Use borders only where you want to divide key sections. 

Space often works better than borders.  When looking at Table 3, you might also sense a more open, breathable format.  All I did was insert an empty row about the Outputs row and above the Process row.  I could have chosen perhaps a vertical line between Company A and Company B but note that the space between them does the job well.  When possible, use space to divide things rather than lines. 

Group like factors.  The empty rows in Table 3 also serve to group the first three factors and the second three factors.  This was intentional—the top three factors relate to determining productivity and the bottom three factors relate to various process features.  If you have a long list of factors and some of them are related, it might make sense to group them.  The reader will subconsciously make the connection and more readily process your comparison. 

Justifying the columns.  Left justify the far left column that contains your factors.  For the remaining columns, it usually makes sense to justify them to the right--particularly when your data are numerical.  Note that by default (Table 2) Word does the opposite and left justifies everything!  You can change justification by highlighting the appropriate cells and then selecting the appropriate align wizard on the Formatting toolbar.  Sometimes, centering your columns makes sense but the mind usually processes comparisons better when columns are justified to the right.   

Center the table and title.  Although the columns may be justified to one side or the other, the overall table and title should be centered on the page.

Manage your sig figs.  Many students are hesitant to round numbers, opting instead to carry out decimals many places.  In some situations demanding high precisions, this may be warranted.  In most managerial analyses, however, you’re better off rounding to three or so significant figures.  Note the difference in calculated productivity between Tables 2 and 3. 

Label your factors where appropriate.  Note that Table 3 includes labels on the Output, Labor, and Productivity factors.  Never assume that readers know the units of measure associated with your data. 

Footnotes.  Note that I footnoted the Productivity calculation in Table 3.  I like footnoting calculations in tables rather than elsewhere because this is where the data are actually being presented.  Nice, simple, clean.  You can also footnote sources of information in a table as well.

Title.  All tables need titles.  Number your tables in the order that they are presented.  After the table number, include a title that is descriptive enough so that both the reader (and you) can make sense of what the table is about.  For example, Table 4: Operational Comparison of Investment Alternatives.  Titles are usually best place above the table and centered. 

That's a Wrap

That’s about it.  With a little practice you’ll be making great tables and, more importantly, improving the effectiveness of your comparative analyses for your readers.  Noice!

 

 

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