The Basics of a Pivot Table

Pivot tables are awesome. You can take a range of data, apply a little magic to it, then manipulate that data in so many ways to make analyzing and predicting much easier. It’s a great way to compare and manipulate data on the fly in a meaningful matter. They seem like these really difficult and esoteric things to create, and people who can use them well are very much valued. While a Pivot Table in Excel can seem quite complex, I want to let you in on a little secret:

The Basics of a Pivot Table are Easy

The first thing you need is a large range of data. For the purposes of this exercise, we have four friends who are competing for the first six months of 2017 to see who gets the highest step count (fitness-minded fellows that they are…) I’m not going to post the whole table, as 180 entries would just be eye-crossingly boring. And you know, that’s the point. But the source table is going to start something like this:

Date Grady Rich Derek John
1/1/2017 10532 12637 8679 12129
1/2/2017 11329 18430 9393 9221
1/3/2017 12475 16594 14010 13990

So, we have five columns – one for the date and one for each of the contestants. They record their step counts each day. But at the end of the contest, they want to analyze that data to see how they did not only by day, but by month or week.

Without Pivot Tables, this would be a royal pain. So, let’s make one.

To make a Pivot Table

  1. Select any cell in a data rage that includes a heading for each column in the top row.
  2. Activate the Insert tab.
  3. In the Tables group, click the PivotTable button to open the Create PivotTable dialog box.
  4. In the Table/Range box, verify that the range in the box is the range you want. By default, it will display the continuous range that has the selected cell in it, but you can also select the cells with the mouse, if you wish.
  5. Select a location for the PivotTable. You can place the PivotTable in a new or existing worksheet. I almost always go with a new worksheet.
  6. Click OK.

Add Pivot Table Fields

You can add fields to a PivotTable to specify the data you want to display. The Fields of the source data appear in the PivotTable Field List task pane.

To add field drag a relevant field from the top of the PivotTable Field List to one of the four areas at the bottom of the task pane. You can add more than one field to an area, and you don’t need to add all fields to the table.

This example was a fairly simple one, as the relevant headers were merely dates and the contestants’ names. I dragged the Date field to the Row box. I then dragged each of the contestants’ names to the Values box.

As of this writing, the current version of Excel does something pretty nifty and will automatically collapse the dates by month, using the sum of the values as the default.

See the plus signs beside each name? From here, you can click on the plus sign if you want to see the value for each date.

But let’s say you wanted to give this to someone who isn’t really very patient with learning how to manipulate Excel, but still needs to filter the data sometimes. What can you do to make this easy on the user?

Slicers in Pivot Tables

Slicers are just buttons that work as filters. To create a Slicer, go to the Pivot TablesTools|Analyze tab. In the Filter group, click on Insert Slicer.

I’ve chosen Months as the option here because the guys want to see how they do month by month as well as how well they’ve done in total.

When we click on each month, we will then display the data only for that month. The beauty here is that the source data is still safe. You can manipulate how the data is displayed in a Pivot Table, but the source data is always unchanged. You will notice also, that in a Pivot Table, the Grand Total always reflects the data that is being currently displayed – no extra formulas or functions to write. Just change on the fly to display what you need!

These are really just the basics of Pivot Tables. You can get a lot more complex with them, if you want to, and I urge you to play and explore. But these basics should be enough to help amaze your co-workers and excite your boss.

As always, if you have any questions, just comment and I’ll try to help you out.

Author: Noël Figart

Noël Figart is a computer applications instructor, technical writer and editor.

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