Creating outlines for Keynote in Pages and TextEdit

Like many Mac users who produce presentations I fell in love with Keynote from day one (well almost; I have to admit to being a born cynic). It allows you to create sleek, highly polished presentations that have a filmic quality and the program’s interface is elegant and simple to use.

Waiting for me to bag-out powerpoint aren’t you? Not today. I was a Windows user for more than a decade before my conversion. I produced many high quality presentations with Powerpoint and as I was brought up to believe that its a poor tradesperson who blames his tools I’ll give fare dues to PPT. Microsoft’s presentation software has been around longer than Apple’s and it bristles, in a dull chrome-plated plastic kind of way, with features that are in some cases sadly and in others thankfully absent from Keynote. One of the features I’ve missed, which was an integral part of my presentation creation workflow, is the ability to create a presentation outline in a word processor application and import it into Powerpoint.

Being able to create outlines away from the presentation tool allows you to focus on dialogue: a bit like writing a screen play. It’s also a great way to cheat if your running late with your presentation or working from someone else’s document, because you can markup an existing document and then quickly produce a presentation from it.

Thankfully, it is possible to do this in Keynote but its not very apparent how. I’m not sure how long this feature has existed, some blog posts suggest it was only introduced in the latest version (Keynote ’09 – Version 5) but given the secluded nature of this feature it may have been around longer. Anyway, here’s how to create outlines for Keynote in Pages and, believe it or not, TextEdit.

Lets look at the quick-and-dirty way to do this with Pages first. Open Pages and select the Harvard Outline template from the template chooser. Some blog posts suggest you can use any of the outline templates but I’ve done some experiments and found that the only one that works reliable (tell you why later) is the Harvard one. If you just want to see how this works for now don’t bother changing the text otherwise replace the text in the template with the text of your presentation.  Keep in mind how the structure of the outline will render in Keynote: first / root level headings become page titles, second level headings become first level bulleted lists, third level headings become second level sub lists and so on. The Harvard Outline template has nine heading levels but using any more then three is impractical. Ignore the numbering of the lists in the outline, they will not appear in the presentation. Select all the text in your pages document and copy it.

  • File > New from Template Chooser…
Select the Harvard Outline Template
Select the Harvard Outline Template

Open Keynote and select a template. Don’t paste anything yet though. Open the outline view (View > Outline) and select the slide icon next to the number 1 which represents the first page of the presentation. Wait for it … get your thumb off the command key. Go to the edit menu and select Paste and Match Style. That’s all there is to it.

  • File > New from Theme Chooser…
  • Select a theme
  • View > Outline
  • Select the slide icon nect to the number 1
Select the slide icon next to the number 1 in the Keynote outline view
Select the slide icon next to the number 1 in the Keynote outline view
  • Edit > Paste and Match Style
The imported outline as it apperas in Keynote
The imported outline as it apperas in Keynote

Why does it work? Better still: Why doesn’t it work with the other outline templates? In the Harvard Outline template each heading level has a corresponding indent level. If you open the Text inspector and select the list tab you can see the indent level for each heading level as you select them. This stays consistent when you edit content in this template. You can select list items and hit tab to increase the indentation or shift+tab to decrease it and the indent level will follow suit. This however is not the case in the other outline templates: indentation of the content increases and decreases but the indent level doesn’t.

Once we appreciate that the indent level is the prompt for Keynote to create a new slide or bulleted list we can use this to markup our own documents for use as a presentation out line or to create our own presentation outline template. I’ve created a very simple one for you to try. The shear simplicity of the indent level being the key to this and my experience with Powerpoint which uses a similar technique and can import a range of document types as outlines got me thinking that we might be able to use other applications to create outlines. A few experiments later and it became obvious that it is possible to create outlines simply and quickly in TextEdit. The procedure to do so is as follows.

Create a new RTF document in TextEdit.* You know your editing rich text in TextEdit when you see the styles, alignment, etc., controls in the button bar.

Type out some slide titles and bullet points each one on a single line like the example here.

Unformattted outline in TextEdit
Unformattted outline in TextEdit

Format all the bullet point and sub-bullet point text into bulleted lists by selecting one of the list styles from the lists drop-down.

The TextEdit outline as a list
The TextEdit outline as a list

Indent all the list items one level deep by selecting them and hitting the tab key once.

FYI You can make multiple selections by holding down the command key whilst selecting with the mouse.

Select the sub-bullet list items and indent them one more time.

Finished outline in TextEdit
Finished outline in TextEdit

Select all the text and then follow the steps above to create a new Keynote presentation and paste the text into its outline.

The outline from TextEdit as it appears in Keynote
The outline from TextEdit as it appears in Keynote

*This is usually the default for TextEdit, much to my annoyance. Many Mac users assume from the name that its a plan text editor when it is both a basic rich-text editor (RTF – rich text format) and a plan text editor but it creates rich text by default.

4 thoughts on “Creating outlines for Keynote in Pages and TextEdit”

  1. Having selected a Master in Keynote that has bullets, I find myself UNABLE to remove the indent level for other slides where I wish to have TEXT centered in the subtitles box…. I’ve tried to create a “new Master” to use there, but it changed the background and cannot recreate that exactly …. so I’m stumped! All of the subtitle box text remains indented, even when I try in investigator to remove the “1” under indent level — thanks for your help!

  2. Sounds like you may have accidentally edited the master slide some how. Try view > show master slides and have a look to see is the Title & Subtitle master has been altered. Hope this helps.

  3. Hey, Peter

    Thanks for the information. This was specifically what I was looking for (and couldn’t find). I had seen someone do this with PowerPoint and Word but the Mac PPT application would always default the Word DOC to… Word.

    Great information! Thanks again.


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