Actions speak louder than words, and nowhere is this more evident than in the way body language, or non-verbal communication, can make or break a negotiation or business transaction.

It's generally recognized that people who know how to read and use body language are more effective than those who do not. Take the case of the young liberal arts graduate who, fresh out of college, went off to New York for a job interview with a major commercial bank. The interview:

Banker: "So, you want to be a banker?"

Graduate (emphatically): "Yes, sir. Very much, sir."

banker: "Then why are you shaking your head back and forth?"

Graduate: "What do you mean, sir?"

Banker: "I mean, you're shaking your head no. You're saying yes, but it looks like you mean no."

Needless to say, the graduate didn't get the job. I know. I was the graduate.

Who knows how many other people may lose similar opportunities because they are unaware of how non-verbal signals affect their and work?

"Research," says Washington communications consultant Norm Jorgensen, "indicates that the first three or four minutes of any contact between previous strangers forms the basis of the decision to accept or reject a person and what he has to say.

"More important, less than 10 percent of any communication is conveyed through words. Fully 60 percent of all communication between people is based on body language, with the rest coming through tone of voice."

Jorgensen tells of a computer salesman confronted with a skeptical senior executive, who entered the conference room, sat down directly across from the salesman, crossed his legs, tilted his head back and said, "Okay, what are you trying to sell me?"

Sensing that the man was not in a mood to buy, the salesman quickly changed gears. Instead of going right into his pitch, he turned sideways in his own chair, tilted his head back, crossed his arms and legs in the same manner as the executive and said, "Well, before we begin, let me ask you a few questions about your company."

As he talked, the salesman began relaxing his pose, first unfolding his arms, then uncrossing his legs, and finally turning openly toward the executive. After five minutes the executive became receptive enough to start talking business. Before the hour was over, the salesman had a contract.

All negotiations, of course, don't turn out quite like that -- even with body language. But an awarness of personal mannerisms -- terms of address, gestures, eye contact, expressions of emotion which reflect interior states of mind -- can help.

The trick, says James Gray, an image consultant affiliated with American University, is to develop a set of gestures and body movements that strengthen rather than weaken your communication.

"Most people are unaccustomed to paying attention to their bodies when speaking, and they will frequently send out a huge array of neutral or flatly contradictory signals," says Gray.

"For example, when talking to a group a man will usually put his hands in his pockets or let them fall at his sides. The one position is closed, the other wooden and lifeless. A more dynamic tactic is to use the hands to actively enhance the image you project.

"I've seen a number of situations where two people will get together to talk out a problem, but then will assume a variety of closed body positions that make open communication difficult, if not impossible.

"For instance, one person will stay behind his desk instead of sitting down in a chair next to the other person. The other might cross his arms, turn a shoulder toward the other person, or clench his fists ever so slightly. The movements are subtle, but in such positions the body is constrained. And so is the exchange."

Gray recommends creating gestures that "pull people in."

"Words and body language have to be congruent," says Gray, "and common sense will tell you what gestures reinforce or detract from your points."

Whatever else has been said about Secretary of State Alexander Haig, consultant Jorgensen points to him as a model of communicativeness.

"Haig is one of the most impressive and overpowering people in government," claims Jorgensen, "and the reason is not so much for what he says, but for how he says it.

"Look at how he testifies before Congress. He uses eye contact more than anyone else. He sits very upright and slightly forward in his chair. His shoulders are square and he turns toward every individual he responds to. His face is mobile and he uses gestures constantly. He's always reaching out and pulling people toward him. He is responsive and active. His whole image is one of confidence, openess, leadership, vigorousness and, above all, believability."

Body language is also an important reflection of corporate status, says Lowell (Mass.) University psychology professor Nancy Henley, a frequent lecturer on "body politics."

"Making it in an institutional setting -- whether it be a business, government agency or think-tank -- frequently requires understanding the mannerisms of one's superiors and establishing an image appropriate to rank."

As an example, Henley tells of one corporation which fired a young employe for no apparent reason. He had worked hard, was conscientious and had turned in good written work. But what happened, Henley says, was that he was very independent-minded and had adopted a number of mannerisms beyond his rank.

"That made him look 'uppity' on the job," says Henley, "and his superiors just decided he didn't fit in."

Henley contrasts this situation with that of another young executive who rose rapidly through his company's ranks. In studying him, Henley noticed that, being taller than most of his superiors, the junior executive would -- in talking informally with his boss -- deliberately make himself smaller by stooping slightly or leaning on the edge of his desk. He also spoke more softly than his superiors.

With peers, on the other hand, the junior executive stood to full height and spoke in his normal voice. This made him appear more mature than his peers, which his supervisors noticed -- and rewarded.

Some specialists think women have a harder time assimilating these behavior patterns than men. "The problem is that corporate values and behavior patterns have traditionally been male, and as yet there are few female role-models," says Jane Johnston, a career development specialist at George Washington University.

She recommends that women adopt an open, straightforward style that coincides with both male and female behavior traits. "Women should not attempt to 'ape' men," she says. "The most successful women know how to maintain their professionalism without losing their femininity."

They do this, she says, by allowing themselves to be warmer and more responsive than most men, while at the same time keeping their distance, not smiling too much and not tilting their heads or using "fashion model" gestures.

Learning to use body language, the experts agree, boils down to developing an appreciation for nuance.

"You have to listen twice as much as you talk," says Jorgensen. "Remember, logic sells, but emotion buys."