Audience design

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Audience design is a sociolinguistic model outlined by Allan Bell in 1984 which proposes that linguistic style-shifting occurs primarily in response to a speaker's audience. According to this model, speakers adjust their speech primarily towards that of their audience in order to express solidarity or intimacy with them, or away from their audience’s speech to express distance.


Earlier sociolinguistic research was primarily influenced by William Labov, who studied style-shifting as a function of attention paid to speech, and who developed techniques for eliciting various styles of speech during research interviews. Some sociolinguists have questioned whether Labov’s categories of speech style apply outside the confines of the sociolinguistic interview, and some have suggested that attention to speech alone does not account for all types of style-shifting.[1]

Allan Bell’s research[edit]

Bell’s model of audience design was inspired by his research on the speech of radio news broadcasters in New Zealand. The study focused on two radio stations which shared the same recording studio and some of the same individual newsreaders. One station, National Radio, attracted an audience from higher socioeconomic brackets. The other, a local community station, drew a broader range of listeners including those from lower socioeconomic brackets.

Bell’s analysis of the newsreaders’ speech revealed that they spoke differently based on the intended radio audience. He identified relationships in the frequency of sociolinguistic variables, such as postvocalic [t], which corresponded to the speech of the radio audiences. Bell proposed that because the topic of speech (identical news topics), speaker, and speech activity were the same, the most plausible way of accounting for the variation was that the newscasters were attuning their speech to what they perceived to be the norms for the respective radio audiences.

Audience types[edit]

The audience design framework distinguishes between several kinds of audience types based on three criteria from the perspective of the speaker: known (whether an addressee is known to be part of a speech context), ratified (the speaker acknowledges the listener’s presence in the speech context), or addressed (the listener is directly spoken to). The impact of audience members on the speaker’s style-shifting is proportional to the degree to which the speaker recognizes and ratifies them. Bell defined the following audience types:

  • Addressee – listeners who are known, ratified, and addressed
  • Auditor – listeners who are not directly addressed, but are known and ratified
  • Overhearer – non-ratified listeners of whom the speaker is aware
  • Eavesdropper – non-ratified listeners of whom the speaker is unaware


  1. ^ Bell, A. (1984) Language Style as Audience Design. In Coupland, N. and A. Jaworski (1997, eds.) Sociolinguistics: a Reader and Coursebook, pp. 240-50. New York: St Mattin's Press Inc.

See also[edit]