Does anybody really need a one-minute ‘elevator pitch’?

January 23, 2014, 11:14 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I’m ready to move on from the job I have now to something with more scope for advancement, which means I’m job hunting for the first time in about 20 years. Since it has been so long since I had to talk about myself to people who aren’t familiar with my work, I’ve been reading a lot of advice on how to go about it, and I keep coming across this idea of having a short (one- or two-minute) “elevator pitch” that sums up my skills and experience.

I have two problems with this. First, I’ve had almost two decades of experience that varies all over the map, so it isn’t easy to pack it all into a minute or two. And second, the idea of trying to do that just seems really phony to me. What do you and your readers think? Do I need an “elevator pitch” or not? — Skeptical in Seattle

Dear S.S.: Ever been to a networking event, or a party, where someone buttonholed you and delivered a scripted presentation of his or her life and career? If so, and assuming your reaction was to look for some way to escape, you know what it’s like to be stuck in an elevator with someone who’s delivering a pitch.

By contrast, says Steve Yastrow, “If you’ve ever met someone at a party — or a wedding, or anywhere — and made a date for lunch the next week, it wasn’t because you and that person made scripted presentations to each other. It’s because you connected. The rules are the same in a job interview, or on an elevator, as everywhere else in life.”

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Yastrow, who is a branding consultant with clients like McDonald’s (MCD) and Jenny Craig, recently published a book on this topic called Ditch the Pitch: The Art of Improvised Persuasion. A canned speech, he says, is doomed to fall on deaf ears, partly because we’re all bombarded with thousands of advertising messages every day, to the point where “when people sense a pitch coming at them, they get defensive.”

Even more important: “If you create a message before you know anything about the other person, how can you possibly know it’s what they are looking for? It’s like throwing a dart in a dark room.”

Instead of “sucking up all the air on the proverbial elevator by talking about yourself,” he says, practice piquing the other person’s curiosity so that he or she wants to learn more. “You won’t close the deal, or get the job, in an elevator, or even in one interview if it’s a senior role,” he says. “So your goal should be to earn the other person’s interest — and another meeting.”

How? By making the conversation about what’s on the other person’s mind. “Most job interviewers, or executives in an elevator, care a lot more about what the company needs to meet its goals right now than about your life story,” Yastrow notes. “So make the conversation about that. Focusing on what the company is really looking for — which isn’t always in the formal job description — inevitably leads to your having a chance to mention where your skills and experience fit in. Show that what they care about is what you care about, too.”

To do that, you first need to be a great listener. It’s a truism by now that the most effective salespeople spend much more time listening than talking, and in a job interview (or in an elevator), after all, what you’re selling is yourself.

In Ditch the Pitch, Yastrow explains how some of the same improvisation techniques that actors use can apply to business situations too. One example: Saying “Yes, and …” Explains Yastrow, “Actors in improvised scenes listen carefully to what someone else just said and then build on it. It’s how you create affinity in conversations.”

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Humans, he points out, are natural improvisers who rarely plan ahead of time what they’ll say or when they’ll say it, but rather let the flow of a discussion be their cue. “Don’t think of this as ‘winging it’ in an interview, or a sales call,” he says. “It’s really more about listening, so you can pick the right moment to chime in.”

He adds that the same principle applies in networking, both in person and online. “Get the other person interested in you by having a conversation that matters to them, and goes where they want it to go,” Yastrow says. Especially in your case, with a couple of decades of varied experience, he says, “improvising a fresh, spontaneous conversation makes a lot more sense — and is a lot more likely to get the results you want — than essentially reading your resume aloud.”

Talkback: Has an elevator pitch ever gotten results for you? If you’ve been on the receiving end of one, did it pique your interest? Leave a message below.