Though an estimated 70 million people worldwide stutter, media representation of public figures with stutters is a drop in the ocean—with the rare exception of multi-talented Toronto-based comedian, activist, and motivational speaker Joze Piranian. Resolved to change society’s perception of people with stutters, Piranian has turned his own chronic speech impediment into a successful public speaking platform, bringing him to the stages of comedy clubs, corporate trainings, and prestigious summits to bring awareness to speaking challenges. “Traditionally in movies of the past, the character who stutters would often be this individual with no personality,” Piranian notes, adding that they are often “reduced to their impediment and are not portrayed as confident or having a voice.” After listening to Piranian’s onstage talks, it is clear that this is the farthest from the truth.
Piranian’s journey to confident and comedic motivational spokesperson was not easy. In fact, he spent the better part of his youth dodging public attention and even went to great lengths to avoid the smallest bit of interpersonal communication. “My name used to be the most difficult thing for me to say growing up with a severe stutter. I attempted to engineer a life with as little talking as possible,” Piranian recalls. “Had you told me that I would become a professional public speaker when I was a bit younger, I would have never believed it.” Yet, his Achilles heel has become his greatest motivator. “I embarked on this path of conquering my own fear, and one anxiety-defying action led to another.” Piranian’s stutter has pushed him to advocate for self-acceptance, diversity, and inclusion as he gives talks alongside Director X, the Canadian music video director, the CIO of the Walt Disney Company Susan O’Day, and members of the United Nations.
Growing up, Piranian spent his summers at the AGBU Lebanon camps and later Camp Nubar in New York. “As a thirteen-year-old Armenian kid who was born and raised in Lebanon, I couldn’t have imagined a better introduction to the U.S. than the Camp Nubar experience with hundreds of fellow Armenians from all over the world,” he recalls. While an undergraduate at McGill University in 2009, he participated in the Global Leadership Program (GLP)—which became a turning point for Piranian. That summer, Piranian began to break out of his shell and pursue his interest in human psychology. “I was placed as a research analyst at Meaningful World and I was doing research that was way ahead of my time on mental health— PTSD, and conflict resolution. I think because I dealt with a stutter, I had this additional introspection and curiosity about human behavior.” After graduating from McGill, Piranian continued with his studies with a master’s in business and psychology at Queen’s University in Canada and later, a master’s of international business at Queensland University.
Piranian dove headfirst into his study of the human condition by challenging himself to face his biggest fear. A watershed moment was joining a public speaking club while at university. Most people tend to shy away from their insecurities, but Piranian decided that he was done letting them rule his life. “Fear is a compass. What has changed in my life is not the presence of fear itself, it’s my relationship with it, whereas in the past it would just discourage me.”
His success began with a Toastmasters competition, a popular contest that promotes communication, and leadership. “Initially, I joined as a challenge for myself to work on my stutter, but in 2017, I entered a competition and I won.” He went on to the final stages of the contest and was ranked inspirational speaker of the year. Last year, his speech became a viral sensation with over three million views. “Even now when I still feel stagefright, it acts more as a trampoline that propels me further as opposed to acting as a roadblock, which it had my entire life.”
Once you find the thing that scares you the most, do it and then do it again and again, and again.
A few months after his award-winning speech, Piranian gained even more momentum after giving a Ted Talk titled Why Your Worst Fear May be Your Greatest Asset. The following September, he headlined the Archangel Summit for an audience of 3,000 people. “It’s been rewarding to receive a lot of messages from people about how I’ve inspired them to conquer their own fears or their own equivalent of a stutter.”
Most recently, Piranian was the keynote speaker at the Hollywood Innovation and Technology Summit in 2019, receiving a standing ovation. “Once you find the thing that scares you the most, do it and then do it again and again, and again,” Piranian advises.
Humor and wit also play a role in Piranian’s repertoire; he has performed at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, the Stand in Addendum in Chicago, and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto. “I’ve done stand-up on three continents and in three languages, including English, French, and Spanish.” Though it may seem unusual for a professional public speaker to dabble in comedy, Piranian believes that he is able to use humor to better get his point across. “I do comedy to reframe the narrative of how I dealt with being different and by taking ownership of what makes me unique and different as opposed to feeling like I have to hide myself from the world,” Piranian notes. “Through comedy, I found that I was able to turn my stutter from something I felt insecure about to something that I can joke about on my own terms. And when we use humor, we can address what needs to be addressed in a lighthearted manner that also allows us to have stronger connections with other people.”
Now on the committee of the AGBU Young Professionals of Toronto, Piranian recently performed stand-up on a global Zoom call as part of the YP Live series connecting Young Professionals from all over the world. Coming up on his agenda is an appearance in an upcoming feature documentary about his life Words Left Unspoken, expected to be released in 2021. His final token of advice? “Overcoming fear is not about overcoming one thing one time. Developing the skill or the habit of overcoming fears, so to speak, is a way of life.” Well said.
Banner photo: Piranian performing at Comedy Monday Night at Broken City Social Club in Calgary, Canada. Photo by James Moore