Definition of Audience

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Audience watching a movie
"The rules are: know your audience, know your purpose, and know your method" (Robert J. Dudley).  Hero Images / Getty Images

In rhetoric and composition, audience (from the Latin—audire: hear), refers to the listeners or spectators at a speech or performance, or the intended readership for a piece of writing.

James Porter notes that audience has been "an important concern of Rhetoric since the fifth century B.C.E., and the injunction to 'consider audience' is one of the oldest and most common suggestions to writers and speakers" (Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, 1996).

Examples and Observations

  • "Your readers, those people you are trying to reach with your writing, constitute your audience. The relationship between your audience's needs—based on its knowledge and level of expertise—and your own selection and presentation of evidence is important. Much of what you say and how you say it depends on whether your audience is a group of experts or a more general audience consisting of diverse people interested in your topic.
    Even the way you organize your writing and the amount of details you include—the terms you define, the amount of context you provide, the level of your explanations—depends in part on what your audience needs to know."
    (R. DiYanni and P. C. Hoy II, Scribner's Handbook for Writers. Allyn, 2001)

Knowing Your Audience

  • "Knowing your audience means understanding what it is that they want to know, what they are interested in, whether they agree with or oppose your central arguments, and whether they are likely to find your subject matter useful. You also need to keep in mind the diversity of the audience—some of them might want knowledge while others want to be entertained."
    (David E. Gray, Doing Research in the Real World. SAGE, 2009)
  • "In short, knowing your audience increases your ability to accomplish your purpose for writing."
    (George Eppley and Anita Dixon Eppley, Building Bridges to Academic Writing. McGraw-Hill, 1996)
  • "Writing a book is a solitary experience. I would hide from my own family in a tiny room next to our washer/dryer and type. To keep the writing from being too stiff, I tried to imagine I was having a conversation with a friend."
    (Tina Fey, Bossypants. Little, Brown, 2011)
  • "Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one."
    (John Steinbeck, interviewed by Nathaniel Benchley. The Paris Review, Fall 1969)

How to Increase Your Awareness of Audience

"You can increase your awareness of your audience by asking yourself a few questions before you begin to write:

  • Who are to be your readers?
  • What is their age level? background? education?
  • Where do they live?
  • What are their beliefs and attitudes?
  • What interests them?
  • What, if anything, sets them apart from other people?
  • How familiar are they with your subject?"

​(X.J. Kennedy, et al., The Bedford Reader, 1997)

Five Types of Audience

"We can distinguish five types of address in the process of hierarchical appeals. These are determined by the kinds of audiences we must court. First, there is the general public ('They'); second, there are community guardians ('We'); third, others significant to us as friends and confidants with whom we talk intimately ('You' which internalized becomes 'Me'); fourth, the self we address inwardly in soliloquy (the 'I' talking to its 'me'); and fifth, ideal audiences whom we address as ultimate sources of social order."
(Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Communication and Social Order. Oxford University Press, 1968)

Real and Implied Audiences

"The meanings of 'audience'...tend to diverge in two general directions: one toward actual people external to a text, the audience whom the writer must accommodate; the other toward the text itself and the audience implied there, a set of suggested or evoked attitudes, interests, reactions, [and] conditions of knowledge which may or may not fit with the qualities of actual readers or listeners."
(Douglas B. Park, "The Meaning of 'Audience.'" College English, 44, 1982)

A Mask for the Audience

"[R]hetorical situations involve imagined, fictionalized, constructed versions of the author and the audience. The authors create a narrator or 'speaker' for their texts, sometimes called 'the persona'—literally 'the mask' of the authors, the faces they put forward to their audiences. But modern rhetoric suggests that the author makes a mask for the audience as well. Both Wayne Booth and Walter Ong have suggested that the author's audience is always a fiction. And Edwin Black refers to the rhetorical concept of audience as 'the second persona.' Reader-response theory speaks of 'implied' and 'ideal' audiences. The point is that the author has already begun to craft the appeal as the audience is envisaged and assigned to a position...
The success of the rhetoric depends partly upon whether members of the audience are willing to accept the mask offered to them."
(M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005)

Audience in the Digital Age

"Developments in computer-mediated communication—or the use of various forms of computer technology for writing, storing, and distributing electronic texts—raise new audience issues...As a writing tool, the computer influences the consciousness and practice of both writers and readers and changes how writers produce documents and how readers read them...Studies in hypertext and hypermedia point out how in these media readers contribute actively to textual construction in making their own navigation decisions. In the realm of interactive hypertext, the unitary notions of 'text' and 'author' are further eroded, as is any notion of the audience as a passive receiver."
(James E. Porter, "Audience." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Routledge, 1996)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Audience." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition of Audience. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Audience." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).