A step-by-step guide to creating waterfall charts in PowerPoint

15 min read — by Akash Choudhary

Waterfall charts are an effective way of visualizing and explaining differences in values to an audience. This guide will introduce you to waterfall charts, show you how to create a waterfall chart in PowerPoint, outline the limitations of PowerPoint’s native functionality, and showcase how think-cell is better placed to help you make waterfall charts in PowerPoint.

Key facts

  • Waterfall charts are good for placing a spotlight on drivers of change or contributions to a result.
  • PowerPoint has native functionality to build waterfall charts, but it has limitations and can be relatively time consuming to use.
  • think-cell allows users to create waterfall charts easily and quickly. It also provides enhanced functionality for more impactful visuals and insights.

What is a waterfall chart?

Waterfall chart showing financial performance, displaying Revenue, COGS, Gross Profit, Expenses, and EBITDA.

A waterfall chart (also referred to as a ‘cascade chart’, ‘bridge chart’, or ‘floating bar chart’) visualizes the positive and negative changes between a starting value and an ending value. The goal of a waterfall chart is to clearly illustrate what is driving the difference between two (or multiple) values, as well as the magnitude and composition of those drivers.

Typically, totals are represented by full columns, spanning from the baseline to the total value, visually distinguishing them from the intermediate columns that represent changes or incremental values between these totals.

How are waterfall charts used?

Popularized by consulting firms given their effectiveness, waterfall charts are now heavily used across teams and industries. Good use case examples of when to use a waterfall chart include:

  • Commercial teams to show changes in sales volumes across customer segments.
  • Sales teams to show volume drop-off across different stages of a sales funnel.
  • Finance teams to visualize the magnitude of line items in a ‘profit and loss’ (P&L) statement.
  • HR teams to communicate net changes in headcount.
  • Leadership teams to shed a spotlight on drivers of difference between targets and actual results.

How to create a waterfall chart in PowerPoint

PowerPoint has built-in functionality that allows you to create waterfall charts within your presentation. Below is a step-by-step guide to creating a waterfall chart in PowerPoint. PowerPoint’s functionality has its limitations and is at times hard or time-consuming to use. Click here to read how think-cell can help you create a waterfall chart in PowerPoint in a matter of minutes.

Insert a waterfall chart in PowerPoint

Image depicting navigation to PowerPoint's Insert tab, then Chart under Illustrations group, then Waterfall.
  1. Navigate to the Insert menu.
  2. Select ‘Chart’ under the ‘Illustrations’ group.
  3. Select ‘Waterfall’ from the list of chart options and click OK. This will populate your slide with a waterfall chart template, along with an Excel spreadsheet pop-up.

Add data to your PowerPoint waterfall chart

Click on ‘Edit Data’ to add or edit data in your chart

Right click to access ‘Edit data’ command in a PowerPoint waterfall chart.

Data (x-axis labels and values) is added or edited through your chart’s associated Excel window. Your chart Excel window can be accessed as follows:

  • Automatically opens when you first insert your chart.
  • Select ‘Edit Data’, accessible by right clicking on the chart or through the ‘Chart Design’ ribbon.

Note: PowerPoint functionality does not allow for stacked waterfall charts, so adding additional columns of data will not result in changes to your chart. Click here to see an overview of the benefits of using think-cell to create waterfall charts in PowerPoint, including the ability to create stacked waterfall charts.

Click on ‘Select Data’ to change the visible data in your chart

Image showing navigation to Select Data command in the Chart Design ribbon in order to adjust the data on the waterfall chart.

If you’re adding or removing rows of data to your chart, you’ll need to adjust the selected data your chart is reading from and therefore shows. This can be done as follows:

  1. Click on the ‘Select Data’ command accessible within the ‘Chart Design’ ribbon. This will open the ‘Select Data Source’ window as well as your chart’s Excel window.
  2. Adjust your ‘Chart data range’, selecting the data in your chart’s Excel window you want to show.
Image showing Select Data Source window to specify the data range or source for the chart, allowing user to update the chart's data.

Use the ‘Set as total’ checkbox to make your values totals or sub-totals

A column set to total showing the incremental change between consecutive data points.

Data in your chart can either be:

  • A total, meaning the value is seen as a column that connects to the horizontal x-axis.
  • A sub-total, meaning the value is seen as a floating box.

Tick or untick the ‘Set as total’ checkbox to toggle a datapoint between the two. To access this checkbox, double-click on the datapoint to open its ‘Format Data Point’ task pane. You will see the checkbox under ‘Series Options’.

Style and format your waterfall chart

With your data inserted, it’s time to style your waterfall chart. Styling and formatting can be applied to the entire chart or an individual chart element. Make your selection, and then use the ‘Chart Design’ and ‘Format’ ribbons, or the format task pane that appears on the right when a selection is made, to make your desired styling and formatting changes.

You can format ‘Increase’, ‘Decrease’, or ‘Total’ values as a group by selecting the respective legend element and formatting as desired.

Why use think-cell to create waterfall charts in PowerPoint?

There’s a reason why thousands of companies, including nearly all of the world’s top blue-chip companies and 10 out of the top 10 consulting firms, use our PowerPoint add-in: think-cell is simpler and faster to use, offers more features and functionality, and delivers best-in-class outputs.

The best way of understanding think-cell’s benefits is to experience our software for yourself. You can get yourself a free trial of our software here. That said, the benefits of think-cell are extensive – to name a few:

  • Additional flexibility, including ability to create stacked and vertical waterfall charts

    Relative to native PowerPoint, think-cell provides users with additional flexibility. With think-cell, you can create stacked waterfall charts, great for visualizing additional segmentation. With simple chart rotation functionality, think-cell also allows you to create vertical waterfall charts (the initial and the final value columns start on the vertical axis, while the intermediate values are floating bars).

  • Benefit from enhanced features and functionality

    Change the data to show as percentages, add column breaks to zoom into your data, modify or delete individual connectors, add horizontal reference lines – this is just a selection of functionality that think-cell offers that native PowerPoint doesn’t.

  • Add automatically calculated difference arrows

    Showing total growth or difference between two values is an effective way of accentuating the data shown in your waterfall chart. In just two clicks, you can add an automatically calculated difference arrow between two datapoints, improving your narrative and saving you time.

  • Intuitive charting that requires no training, no experience

    Using native PowerPoint functionality require time and effort to produce your desired output. think-cell is intuitive and simple to use. You can start creating your desired waterfall charts, alongside other chart types, from the get-go without any training.

  • Save significant time

    For professionals who rely on PowerPoint to tell their story, think-cell helps you get the job done faster. Our customers experience significant time savings — as high as 70%. That’s less time spent on slide creation, and more time spend on value-add activities.

How to create a waterfall chart using think-cell

think-cell is the number one PowerPoint add-in, used for creating waterfall charts in PowerPoint alongside a range of other available chart types and features. Here’s a quick guide on creating a waterfall chart in PowerPoint using think-cell:

Insert a waterfall chart in PowerPoint using think-cell

If you don’t have access to think-cell, you can download a 30-day free trial of our software.

If you need help installing our software, you can read our simple installation guide. Once you have access to think-cell within PowerPoint, you can insert a waterfall chart in PowerPoint as follows:

think-cell navigation to Build-up Waterfall chart under Elements menu.
  1. Navigate to the Insert menu.
  2. Select ‘Elements’ under the ‘think-cell’ command group.
  3. Select ‘Build-up Waterfall’ and position your chart on your slide.

Add data and information to your waterfall chart

Image displaying the data sheet of a think-cell Waterfall chart with the 'e' formula used to calculate the total value.

Adding data and information to your think-cell chart is quick and easy.

  1. Data is managed using your chart’s excel based datasheet. This will automatically open when you insert your chart. Alternatively, you can access the datasheet by double-clicking on your chart, or by clicking on the datasheet icon on the bottom-right corner of your chart.
  2. Add, remove, or edit column labels in the ‘Category’ row of the datasheet.
  3. Add values to each column by adding data to the respective cells in the data row below. Typing an ‘e’ in a cell will automatically make the associated column a ‘total’ column.

Note: Additional rows of data can be added to further segment your columns, therefore turning your chart into a stacked waterfall chart.

Style and format your waterfall chart

Styling and formatting can be applied to the whole chart or a single chart element. Select your chart or chart element then either left or right click to access formatting options.

  1. Right-click to add or remove chart features – for example, automatically calculated growth or total difference arrows, a legend, gridlines, a line break, labels, and more.
  2. Left-click to style your chart – for example, chart colors and font.

think-cell is a simple, yet powerful tool for charting. The above gives an indication of the simplicity and flexibility of creating a waterfall chart with think-cell. For a more detailed overview of how to create a waterfall chart in PowerPoint using think-cell, please refer to our user guide, or watch our tutorial video below:

Let think-cell help you get the most out of your presentation

Trusted by more than 1,000,000+ users across 25,000+ companies worldwide, think-cell trims hours off the chart creation process. Our powerful PowerPoint add-in simplifies and enhances chart creation in PowerPoint. Download a free trial in a matter of minutes and see why so many around the world use us.

Frequently asked questions about PowerPoint waterfall charts

What is the difference between a bar chart and a waterfall chart?

In a bar chart, all columns are totals connected to the horizontal x-axis. Bar charts are used to show a series of totals next to each other. In a waterfall chart, a mix of total columns and floating columns are used. Waterfall charts are used to clearly illustrate drivers of difference between total columns.

What is a waterfall chart used for?

Waterfall charts are used to shine a spotlight on drivers of change, and the relative magnitude of these drivers. They are effective for visualizing areas of growth or decline (such as revenue or customer segments), or areas of over or underperformance (such as actuals vs targets).

How do I read a waterfall chart?

A waterfall chart is a visual representation of changes in values between two or more totals. A waterfall chart will typically start with a total column, followed by a series of floating columns which represent additions or deductions to this total. The cumulative effect of these floating columns is subsequently represented in a second total column, which is the end point. This sequence can be done more than once in a given chart. Annotations, features, and styling can help readers interpret the chart better.

How do I change the colors of a waterfall chart in PowerPoint?

If using native PowerPoint charting functionality, select your PowerPoint waterfall chart, go to the ‘Chart Design’ tab at the top of the screen and open the ‘Change colors’ gallery. Here, you can select a color palette. You can set it up to display positive values in green and negative values in red, which is a common approach in reporting.

How do I change the legend in a PowerPoint waterfall chart?

If you are looking to change the default labels of a native PowerPoint waterfall chart, this will not be possible. This can easily be done if using think-cell to create a waterfall chart.

If you are looking to change the position of the legend in a native PowerPoint waterfall chart, then go to ‘Chart Design’ tab at the top of the screen and locate the ‘Add Chart Element’ button under ‘Chart Layout’ group. Here you can set the visibility of the legend along with its position: top, bottom, left, right, top right.

How do I create a waterfall chart in Excel?

For Windows

  1. Open the Excel spreadsheet that contains the data you want to turn into a waterfall chart.
  2. Select your data, then navigate to ‘Insert’, then ‘Charts’, then ‘Waterfall’.
  3. Use the Design and Format tabs to customize your chart’s appearance.
  4. To set a data point as a total, double-click on the data point to open the ‘Format Data Point’ task pane and check the ‘Set as total’ checkbox.

For macOS

  1. Open the Excel spreadsheet that contains the data you want to turn into a waterfall chart.
  2. Select your data, then navigate to ‘Insert’, click on the waterfall chart icon, and select ‘Waterfall’.
  3. Use the Design and Format tabs to customize your chart’s appearance.
  4. To set a data point as a total, double-click on the data point to select it, then right-click and select ‘Set as Total’.

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