Microsoft Excel has a range of tools that you can use to help interpret dry data, with sparklines being a useful function.

Spreadsheets may appear as an exhaustive list of data that has little meaning until their contents are compared and contrasted in order to add context. Following this, Excel files are great for giving insight regarding the figures concerned. Before you get to this point, you may be interested in using a tool that was introduced in the 2007 version of this application.

Sparklines are small graphics that fit within cells in order to give a visual representation of the data held in the same location. Using graphics has a great advantage when they're mixed with lots of numbers, and this function helps you utilise the application's integrated calculator with image generation tools. You may already be familiar with some of these concepts and could have spent lots of time entering sales figures, for example, and creating graphs to see when the busy periods for your company are.

Likewise this kind of data can be linked to your profit or loss accounts to show the financial health of the organisation concerned. When it comes to showing these documents to your fellow colleagues, it's a good idea to make sure they have as much impact as possible and this is now achievable from even your spreadsheet's earliest days. Sparklines sit alongside data and help reveal trends and low/high points regarding the figures.

So if you had a cell that revealed how sales increased midway through the year then dropped off between late summer and winter, a sparkline could reflect this. Another advantage is that they're small enough to fit beside a cell, so they do not overshadow the content, but complement it. There are a few different types of lines that you're able to include in cells, meaning to some extent you're free to tailor them to the type of data you have.

Simple line types are good if you want to reveal the up and downward trends reflected in the figures, such as increases and decreases in profit. Column sparklines are also useful for this purpose and are good if there are several values - rather than a couple to show. For instance if you wanted to convert figures from the last six months into a sparkline then a column-type - with its distinctive separate blocks - may make this more clear than one undulating line.

A third type of sparkline is the win/loss kind. These are often used by those who are keen to highlight data that reveals a significant change within the figures. If you run an estate agency for example, your house sale figures may be lagging behind previous years to the point you may have experienced a loss due to the credit crunch.

If these figures have been inputted into a workbook than you may want to insert win/loss sparklines to show when these fraught times occurred. Once you get used to adding these graphics to your spreadsheets, you might begin to see ways in which they could be improved so they reflect your figures more accurately.

As mentioned previously, there may be several chunks of data reflected by your sparkline, but if this creates graphics that you consider to be overly complicated then you can limit the number of value points that are shown, which is useful if you just want to communicate the high and low figures. Formatting options allows you to change the colour and style of lines and if you need to adapt the axis/width of the graphics this can be changed to correspond with the length of time they cover.