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What is the best way to show negative numbers?

There are options for formatting negative numbers: a minus symbol (-), parentheses, and red font color are the usual choices. The minus symbol is the best choice, however; and there are few reasons the minus symbol is preferred.

  1. Upside for using a minus symbol:
    • The minus symbol takes up less space. If it is important to place values within a data-driven chart, space is almost always a consideration.
    • The minus symbol is preferred within text blurbs and sentences.
  2. Downside for using parentheses:
    • Parentheses are difficult to align. You can never impose right-aligned formatting to get your column of numbers aligned. Even though we recommend decimal-tab formatting for columns of numbers, there are cases when you need right align numbers quickly. You want to keep this capability in reserve in case you need it.
    • Using parentheses to signify negative numbers in a text blurb is usually interpreted as a parenthetical statement instead of a negative number.
  3. Downside for using red font color. While using red to signify negative numbers plays into the "in the red" and "in the black" accounting terminology, this may not be a strong enough reason to use a red font for negative numbers.
    • The red font draws attention. In a column of numbers containing negative numbers, you need to decide whether you want your audience's eyes drawn to the negative numbers.
    • Red does not always blend well with a company's color palette. Presentations send all types of messages to audiences in addition to the content messages on each slide. Maintaining continuity in tone and appearance should always be considered if you're thinking of introducing something into the presentation that will be a disruption to the overall presentation style.
    • If you do want to call attention to the negative numbers in a column, you can always choose a more complementary font color or highlight the number in some other way.

For information about creating columns of decimal-aligned numbers, click here.

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