After Diane Wolkstein's storytelling session last Sunday at the Smithsonian Discovery Theater, "A woman came up to me and said, 'I have to tell you, you changed my life. When I heard you tell the Banza story (at an April storytelling festival in Syracuse, N.Y.), I just knew from that story that I could tell stories. And that's what I've done.' "

The essence of what The Banza: A Story From the Heart (Dial Press) communicates, says New York storyteller Wolkstein, is that you are "protected if you tell what's in your heart." That lesson "points people in the right direction," toward telling what really touches them. That, she says, is the first criterion for any storyteller.

It's easier for beginners to tell a story they have heard. "If you want to tell, then you need to listen to stories," says Wolkstein, 40, who teaches storytelling to graduate students at Bank Street College, New York, and tells stories during the summer in Central Park.

Family stories, she says, "take on a family tradition and one which is passed on in a natural way from the adult who thinks it is important." What's important is the parents' "attachment to something which attaches the interest of the children. The process of storytelling is more interesting and special in a family setting."

The stories told by families at Thanksgiving help us understand, says Wolkstein, the "enormous interdependence between each other, that all contribute something and we'd be less without each of us."

Should you be seized by a desire to launch into a storytelling session today, Wolkstein suggests keeping in mind:

* "The practice of storytelling is the telling."

* It is "just as important to introduce the story as to tell it," to place the story "within contexts," in order to set it up. For example: "when in Ireland, where in Ireland and how in Ireland."

* A story should "move to the place and be there . . . draw people into the place where you are naturally so that everyone can be there together."

* If you have a text, read it through to get a sense of it as a whole; think it through in your mind, perhaps visualizing each image as you travel through the story.

* "It's very important that the end have bounce and ring to it, that the transitions be smooth and that you begin well."

* Always be aware of your audience. Maintain eye contact.

"The difference between acting and storytelling," says Wolkstein, "is that if someone falls off a chair or a squirrel cuts across your path in the middle of the performance, you incorporate it into the story ('Why, he ran down the road just as fast as that squirrel'). In acting you pretend nothing happened.

"The audience and the teller all feel we're together at that same moment creating something special."