Relevance, Imagined audiences, and Broadcast Communication

30 May 2024
Conference Room

Relevance, Imagined audiences, and Broadcast Communication

Relevance theory is a hearer-oriented framework for understanding utterance interpretation. The relevance of an utterance is assessed from the perspective of the hearer, and the speaker will aim to make her utterance optimally relevant for the addressee. However, in digitally mediated discourse contexts, as well as in broadcast media, it is not always obvious who the addressee(s) of an utterance is/are and who, therefore, is entitled to use the presumption of optimal relevance in their interpretation. In many digital and broadcast communication contexts, communicators must imagine an audience (Marwick and boyd 2011) and construct their utterances so that they are optimally relevant for that imagined audience.  How, therefore, does a hearer-oriented theory of pragmatics such as relevance theory cope when there is no determinate hearer?

Sperber and Wilson (1995:158) briefly consider this issue in a short passage in their original presentation of relevance theory. They claim that ‘[i]n broadcast communication, a stimulus can even be addressed to whoever finds it relevant. The communicator is then communicating her presumption of relevance to whoever is willing to entertain it’.

In this paper, I work through several examples from English language media to demonstrate how this works in practice. In doing so, I unpack what it means for an utterance to be addressed to ‘whoever finds it relevant’, and how an individual’s interpretation of an utterance might vary depending on whether they consider themselves to be amongst the set of ‘individuals whose cognitive environment the communicator is trying to modify’ (Sperber and Wilson 1995:158). These discussions have implications not only for how we understand the interpretation of digital and broadcast communication, but also for the interpretation of third-party utterances more generally, including overheard utterances and eavesdropping and publicly performed dialogues such as dramatic scenes and public interviews.


Marwick, A. E. and boyd, d. (2011). “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately”: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13(1), 114-133.

Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd edn. Blackwell.