What Is Audience Design?

Mark Wollacott

Audience design is the practice of shaping language to take a speaker's audience into account. This often requires speakers to shift their stylistic choices. As a sociolinguistic model, audience design was first proposed by Alan Bell in 1984. The idea has since been used not just by various speakers — from activists to politicians — but also by television companies, to better target their television shows. In fact, the principles behind audience design can be applied to any situation in which people listen to others speaking.

Audience design has become an important element of television programming research.
Audience design has become an important element of television programming research.

Alan Bell theorized four basic types of audiences. First, there are audiences known as addressees, who are known to speakers and are addressed directly. Second, there are those Bell termed auditors; these listeners are not directly addressed, but are acknowledged by speakers. Overhearers, on the other hand, are not addressed or acknowledged, but speakers are aware of them. Those in the final category are eavesdroppers, according to Bell; speakers are virtually unaware of listeners in this group.

These audiences were conceived as a result of research Bell conducted on radio stations in New Zealand. He compared two radio stations that shared a studio and some of the same presenters, but aimed their content at different listeners. Using this data, he examined the changes in broadcasters' language from one station to the other. The audience was the only variable in the experiment, so he was able to conclusively attribute changes in their styles to differences in audience.

Bell's research looked at other elements of audience design as well, including changes in speakers' language based on the audiences’ perceived socioeconomic backgrounds. Other factors that may affect spoken language include the age of the audience and their perceived tastes or voting patterns. Another factor that is especially important for language tutors is the audiences' perceived linguistic abilities.

For example, an English teacher working with low level non-native students will moderate his or her language for those students. This is done in a number of ways. Sentences can be simplified by reducing the number of clauses and words, or by choosing easier words. Speakers can also slow down their speech while enunciating with clearer diction.

Audience design has become an important element of television programming research. Prior to commissioning a show, during production and especially as shows air, companies poll viewers about their feelings towards shows. Television and media companies then tailor their content and style to the needs of the majority of the audience, in order to maximize viewing numbers.

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