Best Charts to Compare Actual Values with Targets

In the professional world (or life in general), it’s often crucial to understand not just where we stand but also how we measure up against our goals.

It’s the difference between knowing your current sales and understanding if you’re on track to meet your quarterly objective. But with many chart options, which ones give the clearest view of this comparison?

In this article, we’ll break down the best charts for contrasting actual values with targets, ensuring you make data-driven decisions efficiently and effectively.

Let’s get started!

Understanding Actual Versus Targets Data

When working with financial data, it’s common to compare actual numbers, such as achieved sales, against target values like budgets or sales goals.

You might be looking at time-based comparisons (e.g., monthly sales) or category-based comparisons (e.g., sales by region).

To effectively analyze this data and make informed business decisions, it’s essential to understand the ins and outs of actual vs. target data.

First, let’s define some key terms:

  • Actuals: These are the real, achieved figures, like your company’s revenue or expenses in a given period.
  • Targets: These are predetermined values or benchmarks that you aim to achieve, like the budget or a sales quota.

An actual vs. target chart helps you visualize these comparisons by displaying the actual values next to their respective targets.

This type of chart allows you to quickly assess your performance, identify gaps, and determine where adjustments might be necessary.

To create an actual vs. target chart effectively, your data must be clean and well-structured. Excel is a versatile tool for organizing your data, and some tips for preparing it include:

Once your data is ready, you can choose from different types of actual vs. target charts, such as:

  • Column or bar charts: These charts use vertical or horizontal bars to display actuals and targets side by side.
  • Line charts: These charts use lines to represent actuals and targets, making it easy to spot trends over time.
  • Combination charts: These overlap a bar or column chart for actuals and a line chart for targets – useful for comparing multiple data sets.

Remember to make your chart visually appealing and easy to understand. Incorporate various formatting options, such as bold or italic text, bullet points, and tables, to highlight essential information, but use them judiciously to avoid clutter.

Column & Bar Charts

Column and bar charts are among the most effective, particularly with actual vs. target comparisons. They are the easiest to read and visually appealing.

Both column and bar charts allow you to display multiple data series, making it easy to discern how your actual values compare to your target values. In doing so, you can quickly assess whether your goals have been met or if you need to make adjustments.

Comparison Column/Bar Charts

A great way to visualize actual vs. target data side by side is using a column or bar chart. By displaying both sets of data next to each other, you can effectively compare actual values with target values in a comprehensive manner.

Creating a comparison column or bar chart in Excel is relatively straightforward. You simply need to add your actual and target data series, and Excel will automatically create the chart for you.

Column-Bar chart example

Stacked Column/Bar Charts

Another popular and effective option for representing actual vs. target data is stacked column/bar charts.

These charts allow you to show the actual data and the difference to the target within a single bar, making it easy to grasp the relationship between the two.

When designing stacked column/bar charts, it’s essential to consider how you present the data to avoid confusion. Use contrasting colors to differentiate your actual values from the target and ensure that legends are clear and concise for easy interpretation.

Stacked Column-Bar Chart example

Bullet Graphs

You might wonder what bullet graphs are and how they can help you compare actual values with targets. Here’s an example:

Bullet chart example

Bullet graphs were designed by Stephen Few as a replacement for dashboard gauges and meters. They aim to display performance measures while considering their context, such as target values and ratings.

Check out this video on how you can build bullet charts in Excel.

Although it sounds simple, there are a few pitfalls you should watch out for when building bullet graphs in Excel:

  • Ensure your quantitative scale’s values are consistent and appropriate for your data. Mismatched scales can result in misleading visualizations in Excel.
  • Be careful with colors: choose a color palette that complements your data and is easy on the eyes. Avoid using flashy or clashing colors that could distract from the data’s key message.
  • Lastly, keep your bullet graph clean and uncluttered. Resist the temptation to add too many elements, as this can make it harder for the reader to grasp the insights from the graph quickly.

Combination Charts

Combination charts offer a visually appealing way to share performance against targets. There are various types of combo charts that you can use to effectively convey the difference between actuals and targets in your data.

Line-Column Combo Chart

A popular choice for comparing actual values with targets is the line-column combo chart. This chart type allows you to utilize lines for actual values and columns for targets.

Line column combo chart example

One of the benefits of using a line-column combo chart is that it enables you to distinguish between the actual values and the targets easily.

The lines representing actual values give a continuous and smooth representation, whereas the columns help emphasize the individual targets in your data.

Remember to label and scale the chart properly. Otherwise, the reader might get confused about which series represents actual data and which represents the target.

Area-Line Combo Chart

Another option for comparing actual values with targets is the area-line combo chart.

This chart type is particularly suitable for displaying accumulated totals. With an area-line combo chart, you can place an emphasis on the difference between actual and target values by using the visual impact of the area chart.

Area-line combo chart

The area component of this combo chart shows the accumulated total of the actuals, while the line component plots the targets. Combining these two elements makes it easier to assess the gaps between your actuals and targets visually.

Gauge (or Dial) Charts

Gauge charts, also known as dial or speedometer charts, are a great way to display single values of data in a quantitative manner.

These charts typically consist of a dial, marking points, and color-coded zones, making it easy to understand the progress of a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) against a set target.

Speedo chart example

Some common examples include tracking sales targets or monitoring website loading speed. These charts are visually impactful, allowing users to grasp the information being displayed quickly.

However, gauge charts are not perfect for every situation. They can have a few potential drawbacks:

  • Limited data representation: Gauge charts work best for single values, which may not always represent the whole story. If you need to compare multiple data points or series, consider alternative chart types.
  • Space-consuming: Compared to other chart options, gauge charts tend to take up more space on your dashboard or report, making it less efficient in terms of visual real estate.
  • Challenge in readability: Depending on the chart’s design, it might be difficult to read the value the needle is pointing at precisely.

Traffic Lights with Conditional Formatting

Ok, this isn’t a chart per se, but this technique does provide a way to compare large amounts of actual and target values visually.

Creating a traffic lights table is quicker than waiting at a real traffic light 🤪. Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Select the data range with your ‘Actual – Target’ performance data.
  2. Under the ‘Home’ tab, click ‘Conditional Formatting’ -> ‘New Rule’.
  3. Select ‘Icon Sets’ in the Style field.
  4. Enter the criteria for highlighting by selecting the Type and value fields. For example, any value above 0 in the selected range will have a green light.
Traffic light example

Now that you’ve successfully created a traffic lights table let’s weigh its pros and cons when comparing actual/target performance.


  • Visually appealing: Traffic light colors easily identify strong and weak performance areas quickly.
  • Easy to create: With just a few clicks, you can create a full traffic light table.
  • Customizable: You can define your own criteria for each color.


  • Limited for color-blind users: Traffic light colors may not be easily distinguishable for some readers.
  • Print limitations: Traffic light colors may not look as effective when printed in grayscale.

Best Practices for Chart Comparisons

Here are some best practices to make your charts effective and user-friendly.

Color Consistency

As simple as it sounds, it’s crucial to maintain color consistency between actuals and targets. This approach not only enhances readability but also clarifies the data being presented.

For example, consistently use one color (like blue) for actual values and another color (like orange) for target values. This way, your audience can associate each color with its respective data type quickly.

Data Labeling and Annotations

To make your charts self-explanatory, always include clear labeling for data points, axes, and legends. This practice ensures that anyone can understand the chart without context.

But don’t hesitate to add notes or explanations where necessary! This helps in providing context, clarity, and insights into the data.

Interactive Features

One of the best ways to improve your chart comparison experience is by incorporating interactive features like slicers and selection boxes, particularly in Excel.

These tools allow users to drill down into the data or customize their views, providing a personalized and dynamic experience when analyzing actual values and targets.

Keep these best practices in mind while creating your charts to provide a meaningful comparison of actual values and targets.

By doing so, you’ll not only communicate your data effectively but also make it easier for your audience to understand and interpret the information presented in your charts.

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