Just because I adore graphs doesn’t mean that I shun tables. I insert the occasional table inside the body of my report. Every report’s appendices are full of tables, tables, and more tables.

When creating traditional tables, I follow the Dark Horse Analytics guide. When I’m presenting tables in a presentation, webinar, or full-color report, I create heat tables.

In heat tables, higher numbers are darker and lower numbers are lighter. Viewers find patterns in the data much faster than if they were reading line by line of text from the table.

Here’s how to make heat tables in good ol’ Excel.

 

Step 1. Highlight the cells you want to color-code.

Ignore the categories on the left. Ignore the table headers along the top. Just select the actual numbers or percentages in the body of the table.

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

 

Step 2. Click on the Conditional Formatting button.

It’s hiding in plain sight on the Home tab.

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

 

Step 3. Select one of the Color Scales.

For sequential patterns, use a one-color scale (e.g., green faded into white). For diverging patterns, use a two-color scale (e.g., red versus blue).

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Congratulations, you’re finished! Start exploring your data. Which patterns stand out now?

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

 

Bonus! Add white borders to differentiate cells from each other.

White borders help with color printing and with black-and-white printing (so the cells don’t bleed into each other).

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Bonus! Sort the data from greatest to least instead of alphabetically.

Or, from least to greatest, depending on which pattern you want to emphasize. Use the Sort feature or use Filters (Home –> Sort & Filter –> Filter).

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

 

Bonus! Adjust the print settings so your heat table can be printed or PDF’d.

Add a title; repeat the table headings at the top of each page; add a footer with the date and/or page numbers; and adjust the font type and font size. Once you learn to adjust print settings you’ll save hours of time and every printed or PDF’d spreadsheet will look more professional.

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Bonus! Customize the color palette.

Highlight the cells again and return to Home –> Conditional Formatting –> Color Scales –> More Rules.

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Select new colors to correspond with the lowest and highest values in your table. You might even match the RGB codes to your organization’s logo.

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Heat Table Tutorial in Microsoft Excel by Ann K. Emery

Have you tried this tutorial? Comment below and link to a screenshot of your own heat table!

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